After some three decades of working in the field of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), York psychology Professor James Bebko knew one thing for sure. The number of people being diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, a form of ASD, and higher functioning autism was increasing significantly. That meant more students with an ASD attending university who would potentially need support. That’s why Bebko, along with several clinical-developmental psychology graduate students, started York’s Asperger Mentorship Program.
“We saw the need was going to be very strong,” he says.
Right: James Bebko
Now in its fourth year, Bebko expects the highest number of students yet – some 18 to 20 – will join the program and its 12 graduate mentors, supported by the Counselling Foundation of Canada.
“The students will most likely need support with different social situations and sometimes with communication, and those are two key parts of university life,” says Bebko, a psychologist in York’s Faculty of Health. He developed the program to provide support to these students so they have a higher likelihood of success at university. It is free and open to students diagnosed with an ASD at all levels of York University.
Through the Asperger Mentorship Program, students are paired with a mentor – usually a clinical psychology-developmental grad student with experience in ASD – who meets with them anywhere from once a month to once a week, depending on need, to discuss issues, develop strategies and provide individual attention.
The mentors will help navigate social skills, such as how to make or get involved in evening and weekend social plans, meet new people, as well as help develop strategies around managing and organizing course work and exams or talking to a professor about a problem. The mentors will also help with issues around romantic relationships, sexuality, families, dealing with their sudden independence and substance use.
Left: Several of the Asperger Mentorship Program mentors. From left, Carly McMorris, Michelle Viecili, Megan Ames, Stephanie Brown, Ksusha Blacklock, Lisa Hancock, James Bebko, Jessica Schroeder. Missing are Magali Segers, Ami Tint, Jennifer MacMullin and Gayle Goldstein
If mental health issues arise, the mentors can advocate on their behalf and connect them with community supports.
The idea, says Bebko, is that the mentors act like coaches. “Coaches don’t play the game, but they may help teach and support the skills.”
There are also group events where mentors and students come together for a pizza party, to attend a play or sporting event, which helps the students build a social network in a safe environment. “It gives them the opportunity to socialize with people who share many of the same strengths and weaknesses, and where they can just be themselves without having to explain what Asperger is,” says Bebko. “It’s turned out to be extremely helpful to them. They realize they’re not alone at the University. We get continual feedback that it’s great to find others similar to themselves. It’s also been tremendously rewarding for the student mentors.”
As the academic year progresses, it is clear the students are feeling more comfortable. They even set up their own Facebook group.
“One of the main indicators for success I’ve set is that the dropout rate in the ASD student population is no greater than the dropout rate in the full student population,” says Bebko. So far no one in the Asperger Mentorship Program has dropped out of University. And, Bebko is proud to say that the first two students graduated in the spring.
Bebko can’t stress enough that students with ASD are just like other students with wonderful strengths and aspirations. They just may need a little assistance to successfully navigate university.
“The success of the program has been very gratifying,” he says. So much so that he wants to share the success. The program recently published a manual, A Mentoring Program for Students with Asperger and ASDs, to enable other universities and colleges how to set up similar programs. The manual is free thanks to the assistance of the Counselling Foundation of Canada. But Bebko is worried funding won’t last forever and is looking for more partners to ensure the longevity of the program.