Maze-like campuses, 500-seat lecture halls and life in residence. Hormones and parties. Alcohol and drugs. Sex.
Going to college or university is a big step for any young adult, let alone someone with autism.
Last year, more than 800 students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) registered for support at Ontario colleges and universities — a number expected to grow as more children are diagnosed and treated earlier.
Most campuses are ill-prepared to serve this new population of often bright, but socially impaired students.
York University has taken an innovative approach with its Asperger mentorship program, which is winning praise from both students and experts.
The program is the brainchild of psychology professor James Bebko, who came up with the idea five years ago while helping the university’s disability office set up peer support for students with Asperger syndrome, a relatively mild form of autism.
Bebko, who has worked with children, adolescents and families affected by autism for 25 years, knows these students need more than just academic support to be successful at university. He thought his graduate students could help.
The program, which pairs psychology students with “Aspie” undergrads, is a win-win proposition. It gives his students practical experience in their field, while helping students with Asperger’s successfully navigate university life.
The ultimate goal is to ensure the dropout rate for students with autism is no higher than average. On that score alone, the program is a success, says Bebko, former director of York’s clinical-developmental psychology program.
“The mentors work with the students on all areas of concern, but the focus tends to be on the social and personal aspects of university.”
In high school, most students with autism are in highly structured programs with very engaged parents monitoring their every move. But in university, there is an increased expectation of independence. This is where students with Asperger’s often get into trouble.
“We have women putting themselves in risky sexual situations without the skills to cope,” he says. “For some students, it’s a challenge just to go to a coffee shop on campus. The needs are so broad and varied.”
Participants usually meet weekly with their mentor one-on-one and once a month as a group for dinner, plays or other activities.
The program has been funded since 2009 by the Counselling Foundation of Canada, which is providing a $224,000 four-year grant. It has served about 50 students since its inception, with 18 to 20 students matched with mentors each year.
Three students have graduated, some have switched universities for other academic programs, but most are still at York, a sign that the program is making a difference.
Bebko hopes a new manual he has written will be a guide for other institutions to follow.
Evguenia Ignatova, 21, joined the program three years ago when she began a degree in psychology. The Russian immigrant, who came to Toronto with her family when she was 4, says her mentor has helped her navigate university bureaucracy, compose emails and handle telephone calls.
“I find sometimes I call places and they don’t give me the right answers,” she says.
When Ignatova was feeling misunderstood by her boyfriend’s mother, she asked her mentor for advice on how to set the record straight.
“My mentor has helped me with emotional difficulties and personal problems,” she says. “Just talking about it has helped. It means I don’t have to burden my friends and acquaintances.”
Ignatova says her biggest challenge at university is communicating with her professors and dealing with anxiety.
“Sometimes when I ask questions, I do not get answers that are clear enough to understand and I worry that if I ask too many questions, the professors will find me annoying,” she says.
“In the past, I struggled with anxiety and depression due to the workload and the isolation that I imposed on myself as a result of my perfectionism about school work,” she says. “Having a mentor has really helped.”
York psychology PhD student Stephanie Brown has been a mentor for three years and also serves as the program’s co-ordinator.
Students have asked her advice on how to talk to professors, disclose their disability to others, and navigate friendships and romantic relationships.
“Sometimes the mentor may be more aware of a problem than the student,” she says. “You might notice the student has four agendas — one for each class — and suggest they might want to consolidate that into one.
“A highly academic student might say they have no concerns, but you notice they have two papers and an exam coming up for which they aren’t studying. Or they may tell you they have spent 14 hours on one paper and you notice they have been ignoring their other subjects,” she says.
On the personal side, Brown has counselled students on how to talk to strangers and stay safe.
She has cautioned female students against getting into a car alone with a stranger. And she has advised male students not to tell women they don’t know that they think their clothing is “really sexy.”
Mentors often meet students in small groups to practise conversation techniques, including how to ask questions that are appropriate and not too personal.
“One of our goals is to create a peer network for the students,” says Brown, 26. “We are mentors and facilitators. But we are not their friends.”
Working with the students has made Brown passionate about them and the program.
“Many individuals with ASD have wonderful strengths and skills,” she says. “They have worked very hard to get here and we should be doing everything we can to help them succeed.”