Adults with autism spectrum disorders who have the academic ability to matriculate into a full time college environment may still be challenged by the social, self help and advocacy demands of this new environment. These students may benefit from training and support in social skills and in effective self-advocacy specifically geared towards social, academic, and administrative situations in the college environment. Research suggests that peer-mediated intervention (PMI) is a versatile and potentially effective intervention approach for individuals with autism spectrum disorders (Chan, et al., 2009).
Drexel University, under the umbrella of the Eastern Region of the Autism Services, Education, Research and Training (ASERT) has designed a seminar addressing adjustment to college life, self-advocacy, and the development of interpersonal and social skills. The Drexel Autism Support Program (DASP) is geared towards the needs of the burgeoning population of high functioning individuals with autism who are attending college and provides support for college-based trainers. We present pilot results on the feasibility and efficacy of the DASP program.
The DASP course meets 1.5 hours once per week for 8 teacher led sessions. The curriculum addresses goal setting, obtaining accommodations, non-verbal communication, conversation, expanding social networks, college coping skills, assessing strengths, and self-advocacy through lecture, discussion, and role-play. We implement a PMI model by incorporating the use of peer mentors (fellow students) who are trained in autism and in mentoring skills. These students are partnered with students with autism for the completion of weekly in vivo activities designed to practice skills outside of class. Peer mentors attend class weekly, and an additional 45 minutes of group supervision each week. Students complete a Social Networks Questionnaire and the Friendship Questionnaire (Baron-Cohen & Wheelwright, 2003) pre- and post- seminar. Both students and peer mentors evaluate class activities and assignments weekly. The seminar’s first iteration included four students and four peer mentor participants. In Spring 2010 the program will expand to include additional colleges in eastern Pennsylvania.
Preliminary results indicate student satisfaction with the seminar. Students and mentors rated in-class exercises as applicable and as successfully addressing intended objectives. Role-plays were rated as helpful and as realistic practice for social and academic related exchanges with others. Although students do not receive academic credit for the seminar, there was no attrition. Reported durations of weekly mentor/mentee meetings varied from 15 minutes to one hour depending on individual student needs and the demands of each assignment. Peer mentor ratings of assignments overwhelmingly indicate that students and trainers received adequate training prior to assignments and that students were able to attempt or complete assignments.
We will discuss the potential to broadly implement PMI programs in college settings. Our initial results suggest that an abundance of students, primarily in social services or educational majors, have an interest in pairing with and helping students with autism as peer mentors. Students with autism appreciate having a social “guide” to college integration. The results of this ongoing study may inform the development of similar programs in post-secondary institutions.