Sept. 11, 2017

AMPing Up

Developing supports for university students with ASD

Students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often have difficulty with social interaction and communication. Particularly during the transition to post-secondary life, these students may be vulnerable to higher levels of distress and loneliness as a result of these difficulties.

While the number of students with ASD entering post-secondary education is growing, many universities lack support programs to help these students cope with the social aspects of their studies. As most accommodations typically focus on academic success, they do not address the distinctive needs of students with ASD. Since increased social support is linked to better coping and health for this population, designing and implementing effective programs to meet the unique needs of students with ASD is an important goal for Canadian post-secondary institutions.

Working with the ASD Mentorship Program (AMP; Director Dr. James Bebko), Dr. Carly McMorris and her colleagues at York University investigated the experiences of the students in York’s program. This individualized program provides one-on-one and group meetings with peer coaches to help students with ASD navigate university life, and develop their academic and social skills in a safe and support environment. Most students meet with their mentor for one-hour each week, though some met as infrequently as once per month.

Building skills

23 students were surveyed about their time in their program, and its perceived benefits on social skills, friendships, as well as feeling connected with others on campus – goals identified by the students as being important to their university life. All students expressed satisfaction with their time in the program. They saw it as beneficial for developing their capacity, working with their mentors to set and build towards their personal goals.

Students reported appreciating being able to discuss their issues and concerns openly with their mentor. They also liked connecting with other students in group events. Almost every student requested more frequent group events, and several were also interested in further contact with their mentor.

All but one student who was returning to York the following year expressed interest in returning to the program. This accounts for the consistent growth the program has experienced since its creation in 2011. The considerable return rate, and the intake of new students, suggests that the program plays an important role in these students’ experience at university.

Reaching potential

Social difficulties can not only impact a student’s ability to make and maintain relationships, but also their mental health, causing stress and making it more difficult for students with ASD to advocate for themselves.

Post-secondary institutions need to consider providing social supports to promote success for students with ASD. Mentorship programs like AMP can address both academic and social challenges, developing tools and strategies to overcome difficult barriers. Expanding and evaluating support programs with targeted interventions can help these students improve their social relationships, enabling them to succeed, academically and socially, at university.