Promoting Self-Advocacy Skills through Leadership Opportunities: A Participatory Peer-Mentorship Program for Neurodiverse College Students

Poster Presentation
Friday, May 11, 2018: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Hall Grote Zaal (de Doelen ICC Rotterdam)
D. DeNigris1, E. Hotez2, A. Riccio3, A. Cosenza4, V. Lee5, W. Long5, P. J. Brooks6, M. Hossain7, J. D'Onofrio8 and K. Gillespie-Lynch9, (1)Psychology & Counseling, Fairleigh Dickinson University, Madison, NJ, (2)City University of New York, Hunter College, New York, NY, (3)Department of Psychology, The Graduate Center, City University of New York (CUNY), New York, NY, (4)College of Staten Island, City University of New York, Staten Island, NY, (5)Psychology, College of Staten Island, CUNY, Staten Island, NY, (6)Psychology, College of Staten Island, Staten Island, NY, (7)Hunter College, CUNY, New York, NY, (8)Center for Student Accessibility, College of Staten Island, CUNY, Staten Island, NY, (9)Department of Psychology, College of Staten Island; CUNY Graduate Center, Brooklyn, NY
Background: Although increasing numbers of autistic students are entering college, many face challenges adapting to college, including social difficulties, challenges self-regulating and engaging in self-advocacy, and mental health issues (Schindler et al., 2015). Interventions to help autistic students are often neither evidence-based nor informed by the perspectives of autistic students (Barnhill, 2014). In response to the need for programming that directly aligns with the needs and interests of autistic students (White et al., 2017), we developed a participatory mentorship program (Project REACH), in which neurodiverse students play leadership roles in developing, delivering, and evaluating curriculum. Autistic students have the opportunity to become mentors and researchers, whereby they develop leadership skills and shape the program with their unique perspectives.

Objectives: We examined strengths and challenges experienced by autistic and non-autistic students, perspectives of mentors with and without disabilities, and perceived benefits of programming.

Methods: As part of an initiative to help autistic students succeed in college, we developed the Project REACH mentorship program in 2013 (Gillespie-Lynch et al., 2017). Project REACH is open to students with diverse disabilities because a number of autistic students were disinterested in participating in a program solely for autistic people and exposure to diverse peers is likely beneficial. Students participate in weekly hour-long mentor-led group meetings with a structured curriculum and/or hour-long one-on-one meetings. Mentees are encouraged to become mentors and provided with scaffolding to facilitate this transition. Increasingly, autistic students have transitioned into becoming mentors/researchers (and co-authors of this report). Mentees/mentors completed optional semi-structured qualitative interviews at the beginning and end of each semester. Interviews with 26 autistic students (6 mentors), 7 students with other disabilities (4 mentors), and 14 neurotypical students (all mentors) were qualitatively coded after obtaining reliability.

Results: At the end of the term, we asked students which classes/assignments they found easiest and hardest and what non-academic challenges they experienced (Table 1). When asked about goals post-graduation, 46% of autistic students and 33% of non-autistic students indicated employment; 21% of autistic students and 56% of non-autistic students indicated further education. When asked what they gained from mentorship, most indicated social relationships (52% autistic; 47% non-autistic), academic skills (22% autistic; 13% non-autistic), and self-advocacy skills (17% autistic; 20% non-autistic). When asked why they wanted to become a mentor, most mentors indicated that they wished to help others (Table 2). While mentors without disabilities frequently indicated that they had prepared for mentorship by planning, mentors with disabilities often described preparing by maximizing responsiveness to their mentee. Mentors often hoped that their mentee had become empowered through mentorship.

Conclusions: The current study provides a model of a participatory peer-mentorship program for neurodiverse college students. Although research about autistic college students is increasing, autistic students are rarely invited to take on leadership roles in programming. Participatory programming helps align services to the needs of students, provides autistic college students with opportunities to develop communication and teamwork skills, and encourages students with disabilities more generally to become empowered community members.