Autism MATES Is Empowering The Australian Autistic Community

  • All Ages

With 1 in 5 Australians diagnosed with a disability, there is a vast population in our country that is often overlooked. The work of Autism MATES and events such as Model MATES is working hard to change that. 

Autism MATES is a non-profit organisation empowering our autistic community with a focus on socialisation and employability. They create opportunities and events that put young autistic people front and centre, using their voices to advocate for themselves and educate the community.

We spoke with Randa Habelrih, CEO & Founder of Autism MATES, about what Autism MATES is, the upcoming events, and how families can get involved. 

Can you tell us about Autism MATES and the mission behind the organisation?

For us, our key focus at Autism MATES is socialisation and employability. We create opportunities and events which put our young autistic people front and centre to use their voices to advocate for themselves and educate the community. This creates a twofold effect of presenting the humanity behind the diagnosis and empowering our participants by teaching them lifelong skills which improve their self-confidence and self-esteem.

MATES is an acronym for Mates Assisting To Engage Socially. No matter where an individual is on the spectrum, socialisation is often a major challenge. To use the words of my son and Austim MATES ambassador Richard, "just because I find it hard to make friends doesn't mean I don't want to have friends".

We hold monthly dinners at a local club, speaker conferences, and our annual Model MATES event, which we aim to take national. Lastly, we have our school programs, such as the Timmy The Turtle animation, which employed autistic voice-over actors and illustrators.


Richard like all of us, has hopes and dreams and what he wants you to know about him is “he is just like everyone else”!


Why is Model MATES important, and how does it align with your mission?

Model MATES is our signature event. We have our models professionally styled, their hair and makeup done, and they are taught to walk tall and proud on the catwalk. This is so empowering.

For years, too many have walked with their eyes downcast and have avoided being in the spotlight. We flip this mindset and put them front and centre on a catwalk. We place them in the elite arena of fashion and modelling and shine that light directly on them. 

The impact is immediate and life-changing. They can see what is possible. It opens their minds and allows them to dream bigger. It also presents them in a positive light to the community. This is not a charity event; rather, it is about celebrating the individual.

One mother of a 6-year-old who modelled for us for the first time in 2018 said that years of various therapies had not had the effect this one event had on her daughter. 

During her first walk, she was nervous, and her mother walked with her on the catwalk. During the second walk of the day, she pushed her mother out of the way and pirouetted down the catwalk to a cheering audience! After each event, all the models beg me to lock in the next event. 

They love working with our stylist, Bernadette Payne from That's My Style By Bernadette. Together they choose a look that reflects their style, and if they don't have a style, she helps them develop one that they are comfortable with. 

My son Richard now walks taller and is proud to announce that he models. His self-confidence has increased so much that it is obvious to all who know him. At the end of the fashion show, I interview each model briefly, which teaches them how to speak on stage; and again, we focus on their achievements and their strengths- not what they can't do.

Teo Tissue, who will be modelling for the third time for Model MATES, was one of the stars on Love On The Spectrum. I contacted her mother when the producers were looking to cast the show, and I put her in touch with the producers because I knew she would be perfect for the show! This year we will also have Ronan Soussa modelling for Model MATES for the first time -another star from Love On The Spectrum.


Teo Tissue was cast in Love On The Spectrum after taking part in Model MATES.

Are there any other stories that stand out for you and that help drive what you do?

Our greatest joy is when we see the audience's reaction. Our Federal MP and mayor will open one of the shows on Saturday. We are always inundated with requests to join the Model MATES line-up, which is why we know it's important to take the show nationally and allow so many more participants to have the same positive experience.

What other events do you have coming up?

We will be at the Taste In The City at the Entertainment Quarter in Moore Park. 

Autism MATES is the charity partner for the event, and we will have a stall where you can come and meet the team, talk to us about what we do and buy our Freckly Faces chocolates. 

Freckly Faces is our social enterprise that employs young people on the spectrum. This is the brainchild of my son Richard who is 26, autistic and has created his own employment pathway.

We have our monthly MATES dinners. The next one is on the 7 September at the Coogee Diggers Club. These events give our young people the opportunity to do what we all love to do, go out with friends to a local club!

We are also developing an app called 'aut-preneur', which will help young people launch their own businesses.

How can people get involved?

We always need volunteers for our events!

We love to speak at local schools - both primary and high schools - and love to be part of larger conferences. Our Timmy The Turtle animation is an incredible resource for schools, helping students learn about autism. It comes with a workbook written by a clinical psychologist, Emily Hanlon (Richard's big sister!).  And as always, we are focused on growing our social community, so find us online on Instagram, Facebook and TikTok.


Autism MATES is proud to partner with Westfield Eastgardens on 27 August to present this year's Model MATES.

Where: Ground Floor, Westfield Eastgardens
When: Saturday, 27 August.
Showtimes: 11:00AM and 1:00PM
Cost: Free

Find out more on the Autism MATES website

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