A mentorship program at York University is helping students with Asperger’s Syndrome to navigate the ups and downs of student life, both inside and outside the classroom.
The Asperger’s Mentorship Program was created by psychology professor James Bebko, who says he saw the need for a more personal and comprehensive approach to helping students with Asperger’s, a neurological disorder also referred to as autism spectrum disorder. Last year across Ontario, over 800 students with autism spectrum disorder registered for support at the province’s colleges and universities.
The York program, which received a grant in 2008 from the Counselling Foundation of Canada, pairs clients with graduate psychology students, giving mentors practical experience in their field while helping students with Asperger’s successfully adapt to university life. Since its start, more than a dozen mentors have worked with over 50 “Aspie” undergrads.
Mentors act as guides in everything from learning how to balance a hectic timetable to buying a cup of coffee on campus. Dr. Bebko says that although not all students with Asperger’s exhibit the same symptoms, many struggle with daily social interactions that are a major part of university life. “It’s all the little social subtleties – sometimes not even so subtle,” says Dr. Bebko. “Many struggle with social elements like just trying to fit in, be part of the environment and interact socially with peers.”
The goal of the program is to ensure that the dropout rate for students with Asperger’s is no different than for any other group of students on campus. Mentors meet weekly one-on-one with participants and get together with the participants as a group once a month for dinner, a play or other social activity. “One of the common things clients say is that they’re pleased to find out they’re not alone, that there are other students like them at the university,” says Dr. Bebko. “So when they come to these social events, they feel that they can be themselves.”
Dr. Bebko has produced a manual about the program, which he hopes will serve as a guide for universities interested in starting similar programs.