In 2014, OAR’s Board of Directors authorized funding for seven new applied autism research studies in 2015. This additional $210,000 in research grants brings the total funds awarded by OAR to over $3.3 million since its first grants in January 2003. This is the second of seven previews that will be featured in The OARacle over the next few months.
As increasing numbers of students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) enroll in post-secondary education every year, the need for interventions that can help them succeed in graduating also increases. While many possess the requisite cognitive and academic abilities to succeed, they may not fare so well when it comes to executive functioning and social communication, both necessary for success in college and employment.
Of the variety of strategies used to help students with ASD with those skills, peer programs remain understudied in the research literature. That is why Matthew Segall, PhD, is implementing and evaluating a peer mentoring program at the Georgia Institute of Technology for his third OAR-funded study. He received two grants from OAR through its Graduate Student Grants program. Dr. Segall is currently a post-doctoral fellow at the Emory Autism Center and a member of the faculty at the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, Ga. His study, Effects of Peer Mentoring for College Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder, will evaluate:
The effects of a 12-week peer-mentoring intervention for 30 college students with ASD on their grade point average (GPA), retention, social skills, and adaptive behavior skills
The change in attitudes towards and knowledge of ASD among typically developing college student volunteers after having participated as a peer mentor to a student with ASD
The satisfaction of the peer-mentoring program to college students with ASD and peer mentors
In the spring 2015 semester, 30 students with ASD will be randomly assigned to the 12-week program or to a control group that receives the usual services. Students with ASD will be referred from the Office of Disability Services (ODS) and mental health services. Mentors will be primarily recruited from the Stamps Health Services Ambassadors, an undergraduate volunteer organization whose mission focuses on providing participants with experience in the helping professions. Additional mentors will be recruited by word of mouth and outreach to university departments. Prospective mentors will complete a volunteer application, including a statement of interest, a criminal background check, academic standing, and a measure of attitudes and knowledge of ASD.
Students with ASD will meet with Dr. Segall to find out more about the study. During the interview, he will also find out more about the students, including their desire to have a mentor, their goals, whether they have symptoms of anxiety or depression, and their access to supports and services.
Mentors will also meet with Dr. Segall to find out about the characteristics and challenges of the ASD population and the peer mentoring program. Dr. Segall will interview them to assess their communication skills, comfort level in working with individuals with disabilities, their knowledge of campus resources, and their time management skills.
The program will include a half-day of training for both mentees and mentors. Mentee/mentor pairs will be matched according to shared interests, year in college, major, and/or student schedules. Once they are matched, the pairs will meet weekly for 45 minutes, including an initial meeting designed for the mentor to find out more about the mentee, including her or his academic schedule, the current services and supports the mentee uses, concerns, strengths, interests, and goals. After that meeting, the weekly meetings will focus on progress toward goals and recommendations for mentees, such as referral to campus resources, encouraging meetings with professors, and suggesting life and social skills strategies.
Mentors will submit progress reports to Dr. Segall and meet with him on a regular basis. He will also be available to both mentees and mentors for additional assistance as needed.
The students who participate in the “services as usual” group will continue accessing services and supports as they had previously and will be invited to monthly presentations relevant to ASD during the first year of the study. In the second year, they will be offered the chance to participate in the peer mentoring program.
To evaluate the program’s effectiveness, all students with ASD will complete measures of social skills, adaptive behavior, adjustment to college, and services and activities. Referring professionals will also provide evaluations of the students’ social skills and adaptive behavior before and after the program.
Mentors will rate mentees on social skills and adaptive behavior at the end of the 12-week intervention period and complete measures of attitudes and knowledge regarding ASD before and after the program.
All of the program participants will complete a weekly services and activities survey. This web-based survey will ask participants to report on class attendance, time spent studying and completing assignments, meetings with campus service providers (such as tutoring services), social interaction activities, adherence to treatment recommendations from mental health providers, and development of specific life skills.
Both mentors and mentees will participate in a post-program interview with Dr. Segall and complete a brief survey relating to their satisfaction with the intervention.
Dr. Segall expects the program to result in these outcomes for students with ASD:
- Successful attainment of course credit hours and retention in the university setting
- Increased sense of connection to peers and campus communities
- Increased awareness of and access to campus resources
- Increased social competence and adaptive behavior skills
- Decreased symptoms of anxiety and depression
He expects that peer mentors will:
- Report more positive attitudes towards individuals with ASD
- Increase their knowledge of ASD
- Increase their awareness of strategies to support adults with ASD
After the study is completed, he will put together a manual describing the program and how to implement it for use at other colleges and universities.
“The provision of a peer mentor is a highly practical strategy,” he writes in his proposal, “providing a bridge between the supports provided to students with ASD while they are in high school and the independence of life on a college campus.”