Peer Mentors for Students with ASD on College Campuses
A peer mentor is an individual with an expected level of experience in a particular area who provides support to a similar-aged individual with less experience in that area (mentee). The critical roles of peer mentors on college and university campuses include support in coursework, degree completion, and navigation of social networks.
In this model, peer mentors typically share common characteristics, attributes, or circumstance with the mentee in such areas as age, ability, interests, or community environment (i.e., school, classes, dormitories, etc.). The desirable traits and skills of peer mentors include patience, flexibility, and effective communication. Peer mentors typically receive training that provides them with skills such as effectively using peer modeling to demonstrate appropriate utilization of targeted skills, facilitating interaction, and providing indirect guidance and positive reinforcement (Battaglia and Radley 2014). The peer mentor/mentee relationship should be one of reciprocity (Gilman 2006); therefore, at its very core, this model provides support on a social level.
Over the last 10–15 years, there has been an increase in the number of adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) who are capable of engaging in postsecondary education. The literature indicates, however, that many of these individuals either do not attend an institution of postsecondary education or, when they attend, struggle with successful completion of a terminal degree (Shattuck et al. 2012). Overarching factors that negatively impact success include challenges in the areas of social interaction, executive function, and emotional regulation (Adreon and Durocher 2007; Gotham et al. 2015). Many who do complete a terminal degree experience difficulty securing gainful employment; this appears to be connected to ongoing challenges with social interaction and poorly developed social capital (Dipeolu et al. 2015).
Social capital refers to connectedness and engagement with individuals, organizations, and communities. Higher levels of social capital are linked to better outcomes in education, employment, health, political participation, safety, and well-being for all individuals (Clark et al. 2015; Hill 2011; Seibert et al. 2001). Building social capital takes time and investment and a strong capacity for socially interacting with a variety of individuals. Students with ASD who attend postsecondary education institutions have difficulty building social capital due to numerous challenges they face in areas such as time management, social interaction, emotional regulation, and navigation of the curriculum.
Many students with ASD, who received support or accommodations in secondary education, no longer receive assistance at their postsecondary education institutions for a variety of reasons, including a lack of willingness to disclose their disability. Furthermore, there is a lack of knowledge and understanding of autism by peers, student affairs staff, and faculty which further impedes potential natural support across multiple settings (Van Hees et al. 2015). Gelbar et al. (2014) reviewed 20 articles that focused on the collegiate experiences and/or support of students with ASD. Commonly reported emotions among these students included anxiety, loneliness, depression, and peer rejection; all factors possibly related to poorly developed peer networks and lower levels of social capital. The authors concluded that there is a scarcity of research on postsecondary education experiences of students with ASD, noting that most articles are case studies and very few are empirical in nature.
It is crucial to identify the most effective supports to address core challenges so that these capable individuals will be able to live up to their potential to complete a postsecondary education degree. One such support, commonly referred to as peer-mediated intervention or peer mentoring, is rising in popularity. Given the current ubiquity and success of peer mentor programs on college and university campuses, it would appear to be a reasonable approach with significant potential. Peer mentors can assist students with ASD by modeling social behavior, assisting in making new friends, and supporting involvement in extracurricular activities, areas critical for the development of a peer network and increased levels of social capital.
Evidence exists to support the value of the use of peer mentors in the college setting for all students, particularly for incoming freshmen. These types of interactions provide the opportunity for students to build social networks. Social networks that are developed with faculty, staff, peers, friends, and mentors are strongly linked to student success, e.g., satisfaction, persistence, etc. (Kuh et al. 2012). In addition to acknowledging the effectiveness of peer mentors for all students at the college level, evidence of how to use peer mentors to increase social and academic success for individuals with ASD is needed if this is to be considered a reliable support. There is ample evidence in the K-12 setting of the effectiveness of the use of peer mentors to assist students with ASD in improving social interaction, emotional regulation skills, and academic skills (Hart et al. 2010; Tichenor 2016).
The strategies used in studies of peer-mediated intervention (PMI) in the secondary education population may be useful for students in postsecondary education. Bambara et al. (2016) trained a group of high school students for a period of 18 weeks, 3–4 days per week, to serve as conversational peers to three students with ASD. At the end of the intervention period, the authors found an increase in the following: number of conversational acts, initiation and length of conversations, asking of follow-up questions, making comments, and assertive conversation acts. The authors cited the necessity of systematic intervention in training the peer mentors, concluding that proximity alone would not be sufficient to promote the social interaction. Although there is a paucity of research that addresses the utilization of peer mentors in assisting students with ASD in institutions of postsecondary education, it is reasonable to assume that many of the same factors that have led to success with younger students would also apply to this age group.
Peer mentors have been observed to be helpful in modeling appropriate social behavior and assisting students with ASD in meeting new friends and broadening their friendship circle at the precollege level. However, given the shift in the structure and ambiguity of social engagement that occurs at the college or university level, it is necessary to investigate the feasibility of implementing a structured, formal peer mentor program at this level. Neville and White (2011) surveyed college students with typical development (TD) regarding their openness to peers who demonstrate behaviors typical of individuals with ASD. Results indicated that students who have a first-degree relative with ASD are more open to college peers with ASD and are more likely to be comfortable socializing and/or living in close proximity to them, suggesting a link between awareness and comfort levels. A follow-up study conducted by Gardiner and Iarocci (2014) revealed similar findings. In addition, they found that student acceptance of individuals with disabilities increased the possibility of intent to volunteer. Therefore, if a college or university systematically increases awareness of autism, there will potentially exist a strong pool of peer mentors to assist with the development of social networks, thus leading to increased social capital and the fostering of success in the ASD college population.
Several studies have explored the use of systematically trained and engaged peer mentors at the college or university level geared toward students with ASD. A 1-year longitudinal study (Madriaga et al. 2008) was completed in the United Kingdom that examined the postsecondary education experiences of 1st-year students with ASD. Eight students, across six different universities, were followed for a period of 1 year. Among the goals of the study were to enable a wider group of students with ASD to achieve postgraduate education, raise the profile of students with ASD, promote issues of awareness and disability among staff, and understand societal barriers in order to facilitate a more successful transition to the postsecondary education setting. Six of the eight students were assigned mentors at some point during the year. The narrative reports of the experience with the peer mentors were largely positive. The mentors were viewed as mediators, counselors, or simply as individuals who were available to help. This further supports the feasibility and positive impact of the use of peer mentors.
Weiss and Rohland (2015) reported success in the use of a form of peer mentor support at the University of Rhode Island (URI) in their Communication Coaching Program. Group communication coaching sessions for students with ASD focused on teaching skills to support social communication and executive function. Peer coaches, paired with these students, reinforced the skills in natural settings across the campus. Over the course of 5 years, 55 students (which represented 42% of the students who self-identified with ASD) chose to participate in the program. Progress reports written by the coaches revealed growth in social communication skills, particularly for conversational management; all participants were successful in completing their degrees at URI. The authors of this program acknowledged a need for additional systematic data to further support the effectiveness of peer coaches on the success of this population of students.
Ames et al. (2015) reported on a relatively long-standing mentorship program at York University in Toronto. Overarching goals of the program were for students to feel a sense of belonging within the university community and to assist the students in building a peer network while building social, organizational, and vocational skills. Students were paired with graduate student mentors from the clinical psychology program who had extensive clinical experience and academic knowledge of ASD. Mentors and mentees met weekly, and there were additional group meetings and events that took place regularly. Evaluation of the success of the program was based on a number of measures, including personal interviews, year-end evaluations, student participation, student satisfaction, etc. More than half of the mentees reported meeting weekly with their mentors and high levels of satisfaction in achieving their goals.
Siew et al. (2017) described a mentoring program at Curtin University in Perth Western Australia in which ten undergraduate students with ASD were individually mentored by an undergraduate or graduate student for up to 2 h weekly for one semester. The mentors and mentees also attended weekly group sessions that addressed a number of different topics. The mentors participated in a training program and met weekly for group supervision sessions. Questionnaires were completed by the mentees pre- and post-study. Results indicated a perceived increase in social support and a reduction in general communication apprehension. Overall anxiety scores, however, did not demonstrate a pre-post change. Qualitative results indicated three positive features of the program: constant and stable support, comfort of peer-to-peer support, and flexible and individualized support. Mentors reported a high level of participant satisfaction, demonstrated a 29% pre-post increase in acquisition of knowledge regarding autism, and reported an increased awareness of some challenges faced by individuals with autism, including sensory differences, anxiety, and underlying cognitive processes (Hamilton et al. 2016).
In a unique approach, Cook and Weiss (2016, 2017) reported on a 3-year pilot study in which the building of social networks was accomplished through an undergraduate college class. The course, comprised of students with ASD or other social communication challenges and undergraduate students with typical development, provided students with an in-depth study of social communication and cognition and provided a context to support students with personal or professional challenges. Graduate students of speech-language pathology participated in the study as student teachers. The classroom environment was designed to facilitate the incidental development of peer support networks. Daily group activities and regular rotation of students in the class among the groups ensured that there would be ample opportunity for students to interact with all members of the class. Typical activities included role-play scenarios, review and analysis of targeted movie scenes, and the creation of group and/or individual videos for analysis. In addition, readings on peer mentoring were assigned and were incorporated into focused discussions with the intent of facilitating mentoring opportunities within and external to the class for the students.
Student course reviews indicated a very high level of satisfaction with the class. Pre-post surveys demonstrated an increase in some measures of overall level of comfort toward individuals with ASD among the students in the class with typical development. In pre-post questionnaires, the student teachers demonstrated a statistically significant increase in multiple aspects of understanding and feeling comfortable facilitating peer mentorship activities, while course participants demonstrated a statistically significant increase in a basic level of understanding peer mentorship. Observations of the class during a pre- and post-class social activity indicated increased social interaction and initiation among all students. The advantage of such an indirect approach to peer mentorship is the potentially more naturalistic development of peer networks when compared to a more systematic, direct instructional approach such as the one described by Bambara et al. (2016). In one instance, a peer mentor-mentee relationship developed between two of the course participants. Both individuals reported that the opportunities provided in the class contributed to the development of their relationship. In addition, the indirect approach reduces the necessity for the student with autism to self-disclose.
As the number of students with ASD continues to grow at the college and university levels, it will be necessary to provide appropriate supports and services that enable these students to successfully complete their programs of study. Although student resource support offices typically provide academically based supports, they often do not provide adequate support in the areas of social interaction and communication. In addition to experiencing academic challenges related to executive function, individuals with ASD face greater challenges in social interaction skills and require support in these areas in order to be afforded an equitable opportunity for success in their programs of study.
Given the past and current successful use of peer mentors for all students at the college or university level, it is imperative that these institutions continue to explore and expand upon this support. Fortunately, there currently exist a growing number of programs that provide peer mentors for students with ASD that can be tapped to learn about the best approaches for a particular college or university. In addition, there is clear evidence that supports ease of implementation of such programs when they are combined with either existing peer mentor programs or a college level course. It is possible to provide training to existing peer mentor volunteers in the area of ASD while working toward developing a more systematic program. This approach is supported by the research of Nevill and White (2011), Gardiner and Iarocci (2014), and Cook and Weiss (2016, 2017a, b) that has demonstrated that increasing knowledge and awareness of ASD and facilitating contact with individuals with ASD increases the willingness to support these individuals.
A review of the literature reveals a paucity of empirical studies that have investigated the effectiveness of peer mentors on postsecondary outcomes for college-aged students with ASD. Most of the literature consists of qualitative analyses and includes narrative accounts of approaches used to implement peer mentor programs. Although these latter articles are promising, additional empirical research is needed to determine whether or not peer mentoring can be adopted as an evidence-based practice for this population. In order to increase the quantity of empirical research, collaborations between practitioners and researchers should be encouraged. Together they can identify the most appropriate empirical research design to study the effects of systematically developed (direct) and/or naturally occurring (indirect) peer mentor-mentee relationships. Critical outcomes to be measured are the impact on degree completion, gainful employment, and positive community engagement.
References and Reading
- Cook, B., & Weiss, D. (2016). Social networks: Supporting college/university students with high-functioning autism spectrum disorder. Presented at ASHA Annual Convention, Philadelphia, PA.Google Scholar
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