Inclusion-Focused University-Based Community Integration Programs: A Pilot Study of Perceived Benefits By Participating Adults with Autism

Saturday, May 13, 2017: 12:00 PM-1:40 PM
Golden Gate Ballroom (Marriott Marquis Hotel)
C. E. Exner1, Z. Zaks2 and A. Frydman2, (1)Towson University, Towson, MD, (2)Hussman Center for Adults with Autism, Towson University, Towson, MD
Background: Adults with autism often experience challenges with successfully and meaningfully integrating into their communities (Roux et al., 2015). These challenges affect many aspects of quality of life. Adult-focused approaches to supporting various skills that can enhance quality of life are limited. Similarly research on effective approaches to facilitate greater community integration is minimal (Hendricks & Wehman, 2009; Scheeren & Geurts, 2015).

This Center offers programs that are fully inclusive—bringing together adults with autism and students as peer mentors from a wide variety of majors. Programs focus on enhancing opportunities for adults with autism to live as fully engaged members of their communities. Students enrolled in an undergraduate core course with a 20-hour service learning component engage collaboratively with adults with autism ("participants") in group programs under the supervision of faculty/staff instructors. Each program has similar numbers of adults with autism and student peer mentors and meets for 1-2 hours once or twice a week for 10 weeks during a semester. Programs such as fitness, art, comedy/improv, dance, yoga, men's and women's groups emphasize one or more of five key areas: self-advocacy, self-expression, self-regulation, problem solving and decision making, and team work/collaboration.

Objectives: To assess the participants’ perceptions of 1) benefit from peer-to-peer interaction with the students; and 2) benefit of the program in addressing key areas for community integration.

Methods:  Post-program surveys were distributed to all participants enrolled in Fall 2015 and Spring 2016 programs. Total enrollments across the 15 programs that had undergraduate students as peer mentors were 115. Surveys were completed independently or with parent/guardian/other adult support to record feedback, and returned via mail or through a drop-box at the center. A total of 57 surveys were returned (49.5% return rate).

Results: All participants indicated that they benefited by having student peer mentors engaged in their programs. Participants rated students as being helpful in completing tasks or activities (52.6%), improving communication skills (50.9%), improving teamwork skills (43.9%), expanding knowledge of interests or activities (40.4%), and helping with problem solving (36.8%). They reported the students as having positive attitudes (93%), being helpful (82.5%), and interested in talking with them (71.9%). Participants indicated that they benefited by “meeting new people” and “having people [their] age [they] could talk to.” Across the programs, around 40% of the participants’ comments specified social aspects of the programs as the “best thing” about the program, including “interacting with my mentors,” being treated as an “equal,” “social interaction,” and “students’ company.” Participants also reported wanting to learn - and subsequently learning the most about - social skills, self-expression, and team work in their programs.

Conclusions: Adults with autism reported that the programs helped them gain skills they deemed were important. Participants also had very positive perceptions of the peer-to-peer interactions they experienced and identified specific benefits from peer-engagement. Further research is needed to determine if the impact of these programs remains over time, especially in these areas: social skills, self-expression, team work and high community engagement.