Social Networks: Supporting College/University Students with High Functioning ASD

Poster Presentation
Friday, May 11, 2018: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Hall Grote Zaal (de Doelen ICC Rotterdam)
B. Cook and D. Weiss, Communication Disorders, Southern Connecticut State University, New Haven, CT
Background: Social networks that college students develop with faculty, staff, peers, friends, and mentors are strongly linked to student success, e.g., satisfaction, persistence, etc. (Kuh, Kinzie, Buckley, Bridges & Hayke, 2012). The development of these social networks may be especially challenging for individuals with autism. A number of studies have explored variables related to developing social networks that may impact college success among individuals with autism (Neville & White, 2011). Increasing awareness of autism and related social communication challenges amongst similar aged peers may support an increase in the development of social networks. Additionally, the inclusion of peer mentors as models and supports in the development of peer social networks is a promising key approach (Hart, Grigal, & Weir, 2010). A specially-designed program to increase opportunities for peer mentors and peer networks was developed and assessed by the authors.

Objectives: Identify outcomes related to social interaction and development of peer networks for both individuals with autism and typical development related to participation in a specially-designed university program consisting of a university-level course and participation in a small group orientation experience.

Methods: Participants:Consenting course participants: 19 individuals who self-identified as having autism and 10 individuals who indicated no diagnoses. Intervention:Participation in a university-level, 1 credit course with a focus on social communication and cognition. In addition to the course, participants with autism attended small group orientation and experiential activities that targeted objectives related to the use of social communication to navigate various university entities such as the library, registrar, student involvement center, etc.

Results: Data have been collected over 3 iterations via multiple sources: 1) pre- and post- Likert rated surveys related to comfort with individuals with autism and and willingness to develop peer networks; 2) pre- and post-systematic observation of social interaction behaviors between course participants; and 3) focus interviews 6 months post program with all participants to determine the effect of the program on the knowledge, awareness, and acceptance of autism, as well as the changes in social interactions with the members of the class across time. Data are currently being analyzed; preliminary results include: an increase in peers’ awareness and greater levels of comfort with interactions among the participants of the course (p < .05); a minimum of a 50% increase in observed social interaction behaviors among group members from the first to the final course session; and report of maintained peer connections between some students from each group.

Conclusions: These results provide preliminary evidence of the benefit of developing an inclusive university level course that addresses the key challenge of social interaction and communication faced by individuals with autism. The course provides a context that allows for the development of peer relationships, both as peer mentor/mentee, and can lead to a peer network for the individuals with autism. The addition of the small orientation group appears to enhance these outcomes. The intended outcome of these results is to encourage university faculty and staff to develop a similar program to support individuals with autism.