York U a Canadian leader in autism support

York University’s Strengthening Transitions for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) program has emerged as a leader within Canada for providing comprehensive support to students, faculty and staff.

Autism prevalence in Canada has surged in recent years, with approximately one in every 50 individuals aged one to 17 receiving a diagnosis, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. This increase has led to a growing need for universities to adequately support students with autism as they pursue higher education.

In response, York has emerged as a leader in offering solutions with its ASD program, one of the most comprehensive initiatives in Canada.

Raymond Peart
Raymond Peart

Led by Raymond Peart, the co-ordinator of York’s ASD program, with support from intake manager Angela Lecompte, the initiative provides a wide array of services aimed at helping students with autism succeed academically and socially. Starting with early engagement opportunities such as ASD Transition Days and workshops for high-school educators, the program aims to equip incoming students with essential skills for university life, while also fostering a sense of belonging and confidence. 

Other key features include personalized sessions addressing individual needs and fostering crucial social connections. Driven by an adaptive, feedback-driven approach, the program aims to ensure responsiveness and anticipate challenges, enhancing both academic and social skills development.

“By focusing on individual strengths,” Peart says, “the program counters societal misconceptions, advocating for a future where neurodiversity is acknowledged and supported.”

Angela Lecompte
Angela Lecompte

In their evolving approach to supporting students, families, faculty and staff, Peart and Lecompte acknowledge the contributions of the Autism Mental Health Literacy Project and the Autism Mentorship Program (AMP), which have helped shape their services, while the dedicated mentors of the AMP have provided invaluable support to students with autism, fostering a sense of belonging and recognition.

While York’s program is an example of comprehensive support, reports by organizations such as the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences (CAHS) and the Canadian cross-disability charity National Educational Association of Disabled Students (NEADS) highlight the broader challenges faced by students with autism in Canadian universities. 

According to CAHS, there is a notable lack of autism-specific assistance at post-secondary schools across the country. Similarly, a 2021 study in the United States revealed that only 2.2 per cent of public and not-for-profit universities and colleges have autism-specific college support programs. 

This scarcity of dedicated support programs is further highlighted by NEADS’ findings of frequent ineffective accommodations for students with disabilities at universities, along with an over-reliance on teaching those students to self-advocate, creating additional challenges for them.

In its efforts to provide comprehensive support and proactive engagement, York’s ASD program collaborates with institutions nationwide to foster a stronger support network for students with autism. Looking ahead, it plans to further refine its support services and strengthen ties with career counselling to prepare students for life after graduation. 

Initiatives such as the Conversations Create Change podcast series, designed by adults with autism at York, foster understanding and connection within the neurodivergent community on campus. 

“Through our program, we’re striving to help autistic students establish a sense of belonging and work towards self-actualization,” Peart says. “Our goal is to give them the confidence to move forward and succeed in both academic and social aspects of university life.”