The I CAN Network (Original article posted at Postcards from the Field)
By Nicola Wemyss
Created by people on the Autism Spectrum, the I CAN Network is working at a grassroots level with both the Autistic and the non-Autistic community to “change the way we think about Autism” (Varney 2013). Since its conception, the organization has engaged with schools, businesses, universities, and the wider community to achieve this aim. My evaluation focused on the pilot mentoring program that has been delivered by I CAN at Marymede Catholic College over the last year to provide mentors to young people (Year 7-10) with Autism. Data for the evaluation was collected from participants, mentors and teachers through focus groups and interviews.
It was clear from findings that the program is having a largely positive effect on participants. Whilst the initial reason for joining the program was due to external pressures (i.e. teachers and parents encouragement), students remained in the program for a range of reasons. Mainly it was the social interaction, sense of belonging, and having an opportunity to be themselves that ensured continued participation in the program. However, it was also noted that the intergenerational connection and having a platform to learn more about Autism were also key for students staying involved.
The findings show that there were a variety of positive effects that came with attending the program. Again, social belonging, peer to peer connection and intergenerational connection were highlighted as key benefits. It was also noted across the respondent groups that the program had helped students shift their perceptions on Autism. However, the most widely acknowledged positive outcome of the program was its ability to give students a safe space in which they could feel comfortable to be themselves.
When respondent groups were asked what they believed had contributed to the benefits of the program, there were a wide range of responses. Trust was seen to be a key factor in the success of the program. That is, trust between peers, between mentors and participants, and between the program director and the school staff. Most also saw the strength based approach and underlying positivity of the program delivery as integral to the positive outcomes of the program. The unique delivery of the program was also seen as important by many of the respondent groups.
It was widely acknowledged that the program had a significant positive impact on student’s ability to think about their future prospects. The I CAN Talks were seen as an important factor for supporting students to be more future focused. The underlying positivity and the strength based approach that runs through the program delivery were also seen to play a significant role in achieving this.
Whilst feedback from the evaluation was largely positive, there were some challenges that were also highlighted within the findings. It was noted that sticking to program schedules, limited time and behavior management were all issues that were brought up by various respondent groups.
Overall my study found that the I CAN Network’s pilot mentoring program at Marymede Catholic College has been largely successful in achieving positive outcomes for young people on the Autism Spectrum. The study highlights how the program has been instrumental in enabling participants to feel more comfortable to be themselves, develop positive peer-to-peer and intergenerational relationships, and build general self-confidence. It also appears that the program has positively shifted some participant’s views on what it means to be Autistic and enhanced students ability to think about their future prospects.