Students with Asperger syndrome gain from support group and mentorship

An initiative that began at York University in 2007 is proving to be a great success for students diagnosed with Asperger syndrome. This initiative – an Asperger Support Group and an Asperger Mentorship Program – was developed through a collaboration between York’s Counselling & Disability Services (CDS) and psychology Professor James Bebko, an expert in the autism field and the developer of an Asperger mentoring model.

CDS staff and Bebko worked with York undergraduate and graduate students to create and guide the growth of these Asperger programs, and now two years later, the results are encouraging. York students participating in these programs say the support has given them the opportunity to develop broader peer experiences as well as greater insight and shared knowledge about their challenges.

Left: Canadian actor Dan Ayckroyd is one of several famous people who have identified themselves as having Asperger syndrome. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Defined as a neuro-developmental difference or a mild type of autism spectrum disorder, Asperger syndrome (AS) has been conceptualized as a social and emotional learning disability. Students with AS may have difficulties with social interaction and have restricted and repetitive patterns of behaviour and interests. Symptoms can vary from mild to severe and can be discreet to visibly noticeable.

Some students with AS may reap benefits from the strengths of the syndrome such as verbal skills, conceptual thinking, interests in detailed subject areas and the ability to hyper-focus and persevere. Several famous people have identified themselves as having AS, including Canadian actor Dan Ayckroyd; Satoshi Tajiri, the creator and designer of Pokémon Pocket Monsters; and Heather Kuzmich, fashion model and reality show contestant on “America’s Next Top Model”.

“We see ourselves as cool and interesting, and a lot nicer than neurotypicals!” says a first-year student involved in the support group. Neurotypical is a term sometimes used to describe non-Asperger individuals. (Students involved in the group are selective when disclosing their disability due to concerns about being stigmatized and have chosen to comment anonymously.)

CDS support group facilitators Mary Stasiuk and Aseel Al-Khalili explain that it became apparent early on that the group members were often in the best position to offer advice and support each other. The students bonded around their common grade-school experiences of being teased, bullied or excluded due to their differences. The result, say the facilitators, has been significant personal growth in student participants.

Bebko, the Asperger Mentorship Program leader, says students in the program report that one of the best aspects of the experience is that the fellow student mentors “get” AS, so that the students can be themselves and not need to constantly explain what AS is. Organization can be a difficult challenge, but as the students assumed control of the planning of social activities, their confidence increased significantly and their sense of humour and willingness to accept the suggestions of others emerged, all to the betterment of the group.

“It’s been helpful to learn about my learning style, examining the strengths and weaknesses,” says another student. “My difficulties associated with Asperger become more obvious in certain social situations, but I’m continually learning how to lessen the effects and triggers.”

The students, studying in diverse areas ranging from film and linguistics to psychology and geography, are led by CDS facilitators through informal group activities, including role-playing various social scenarios, icebreakers and other skill-building activities. Students have emphasized how the confidential format of the group has created a safe environment that has led to an openness to express their opinions and share useful advice.

“There are ups and downs…peaks and troughs. Sometimes I feel like saying ‘I have Asperger, see me roar,’ and sometimes I wish it would just go away,” says a linguistics major who has been part of the group. “It does not designate my self-worth. I have found a strong sense of spirituality to be helpful in coping. When I came to a level of self-acceptance [about Asperger syndrome], it applied to other areas of my life.”

In the Asperger Mentorship Program, graduate psychology students act as peer-to-peer mentors about social issues and assist the students to plan and organize their own group activities. Students and mentors meet individually according to their schedules and in small-group format bi-weekly throughout the term. In addition, the socially focused individual and group meetings have created a “safe” place to socialize, where the students realize “we are not alone.”

“In both the one-on-one sessions and the group meetings, [the mentorship program] provided a place to just be myself with friends,” says a student. The value of the Asperger Mentorship Program in the university setting was recognized by significant partial funding for three years by The Counselling Foundation of Canada as well as a gift from the Frederick & Douglas Dickson Memorial Foundation.

“For me it means a progressive journey. Even though it’s considered a disability, I’m always learning from it. Just because I have a label on me, it doesn’t mean I’ll stay the same. Therefore, I have the ability to change and transcend the label,” says a psychology major. “It means something different to me now and at every stage of my life. It affects my decisions in life. It helped explain to me why I thought the way I did. Someone once told me: ‘It’s just a sticker you can peel off and throw out the car window.’ I found that helpful.”

The support services were created in response to increasing numbers of students with AS. The Asperger Support Group and the Asperger Mentorship Program meet on alternating Thursdays, starting in the first week of October until April, from 2:30 to 3:30pm. The annual start-up movie event featuring the film Today’s Man will be held on Thursday, Oct. 1.

The meetings are held in Counselling & Disability Services, N102 Bennett Centre for Student Services. Registration with CDS is required before attending the support group.

Students who are registered with Learning Disability Services (LDS) in CDS can speak to their LDS Disability Counsellor/Educator for more information. If a student is not registered, but would like to participate, he or she can contact for more information. For the mentorship program, the student should speak to speak to his or her counselor or e-mail