The Active Ingredients of Specialist Peer Mentoring for Autistic University Students.
Despite wide recognition of the benefits of post-school education in improving life outcomes for autistic adults the university completion rate for autistic adults remains below that those with and without disabilities. University environments are inherently unpredictable, with high social demands, which may overwhelm autistic students. This unpredictability can exacerbate executive functioning difficulties in planning and prioritising tasks.
The aimed to identify the active ingredients of specialist peer mentoring (SPM) and examine its impact on autistic university students.
A total of 30 (8 female and 22 male; mean age=22.3; SD=6.7) autistic university students engaged in the Curtin Specialist Mentoring Program and UWA Specialist Peer Mentor Program participated in this study; with 18 (5 female; mean age=22.5; SD=9.9) completing both aspects of the study. Seven (2 female; mean age=22.3; SD=3.5) only completed the quantitative aspect and 5 (1 female; mean age=21.0; SD=8.9) participated only in the interview.
A convergent mixed-methods approach was utilised, including a pre-test post-test design examined changes in symptomology experienced by autistic university students. In parallel, the experiences of participating in SPM was explored through semi-structured interviews.
Thematic analysis of the interviews revealed five themes of active ingredients: Developing Partnership and Understanding, Engagement, Modelling and Practising Communication, Psychological Support and Grading and Planning Skills.
Significant improvements were noted at post-test on the SRS-2 total score (M1=89.72, SD1=24.00; M2=79.66, SD2=26.66; t(17)=2.52, p=0.02), and the Social Communication (M1=29.94, SD1=7.89; M2=25.50, SD2=11.29; t(17)=2.24, p=0.03) and Social Motivation (M1=18.22, SD1=5.88; M2=16.00, SD2=5.91; t(17)=2.27, p=0.03) sub-scales.
These results indicated that the active ingredients of SPM included the mentor-mentee partnership. Mentors utilisation of person-centred counselling skills promoted the development of a partnership and understanding. This partnership appeared to modify social cognition and motivation for autistic university students through the active ingredient of modelling and practising communication. Psychological support provided by mentors was a key active ingredient in developing autistic students’ autonomy and self-efficacy. While the active ingredient of the mentors using grading and planning allowed autistic university students to develop strategies to manage their studies and social communication challenges, maximising their social competence.