Researchers who conducted the first systematic review on the state of peer mentoring programs developed for autistic postsecondary students to ensure supports at academic institutions found that programs aligned with several support needs identified by the students and stakeholders but failed to address several other needs.1
They identified 9 peer mentorship programs in 11 peer-reviewed articles in which participants who were autistic were pursuing postsecondary education, the programs were designed for use with the autistic population and underwent evaluation, and the articles were published in English in a peer-reviewed journal. The programs were in Australia, Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom.
A total of 7 programs involved both individual and group meetings. Programs’ group events varied from being primarily social to being skills based (eg, advocacy, social skills). Most programs provided training and supervision for mentors.
A total of 5 programs included overarching goals of providing autistic students with individualized support and a sense of belonging and social integration while others targeted academic achievement or physical activity.
T2 programs, the Autism Mentorship Program (AMP)2 and the Curtin Specialist Mentoring Program (CSMP),3 evaluated participant satisfaction with 5-point Likert scales. High ratings were identified for each program: AMP: M=4.25; standard deviation (SD)=0.75 and M=4.22; SD=.6070 and CSMP: M=4.30; SD=0.50.
There were 2 studies which assessed whether participation in the program resulted in a change using the Social Responsiveness Scale. Gillespie-Lynch et al reported that autism symptoms’ severity were reduced in the spring semester but not in the fall semester.4 Thompson et al reported significant improvements in social awareness, communication, and motivation (ie, dimensions of social responsiveness) among participants.5
The 5 programs that surveyed outcomes related to social support, feelings of belonging, and social integration varied in terms of results. Ncube et al6 did not find significant changes in social support whereas Gillespie-Lynch et al4 reported increased social support following intervention, and Ashbaugh et al7 reported increased involvement in extracurricular activities, community-based activities, and interactions with peers among their participants. There were 2 studies using qualitative methods noted development in social relationships with peers and sense of belonging with autistic peers.
Of the studies reviewed, 2 reported improvements in student grade point average (GPA) following intervention, but each had only 3 small-sample case reports and 5 of the 6 students in these studies were on academic probation before intervention. Ness8 reported improvement of GPA in only 1 student, but observational data indicated improvements in self-regulated learning strategies.
Studies also assessed anxiety, and many found no changes following intervention. Gillespie-Lynch et al4 showed significant declines in trait (but not state) anxiety during the fall assessment.
Todd et al9 showed improvements in cardiorespiratory fitness, flexibility, and upper body muscular endurance following participation in Into Fitness Together, a peer mentoring program focused on improving physical activity among autistic students.
Qualitative analyses identified common themes of the value of the peer/mentorship relationship and attainment of academic skills, achievement of individual student-led goals, and sense of belonging in the academic community.
The only program where autistic voices were explicitly solicited during program development was the Building Bridges, Project REACH program.
Limitations of the study included its focus on peer mentorship programs that included only autistic postsecondary students as participants.
“While the literature on programs and supports for autistic postsecondary students is increasing, this field remains in its infancy,” the study authors wrote.
“In the coming years, it will be important to perform thorough, individualized evaluations of programs for autistic students to determine how best to support this population. It will also be essential to expand the focus of programming and research to include autistic voices and improve accessibility of postsecondary institutions, rather than solely on providing support for students to adapt to the postsecondary environment.”
1. Duerksen K, Besney R, Ames M, McMorris CA. Supporting autistic adults in postsecondary settings: a systematic review of peer mentorship programs. Autism Adulthood. 2021;3(1):85-99. doi:10.1089/aut.2020.0054
2. Ames ME, McMorris CA, Alli LN, Bebko JM. Overview and evaluation of a mentorship program for university students with ASD. Focus Autism Other Dev Disabl. 2016;31(1):27-36. doi:10.1177/1088357615583465
3. Siew CT, Mazzucchelli TG, Rooney R, Girdler S. A specialist peer mentoring program for university students on the autism spectrum: a pilot study. PLoS One. 2017;12(7):e0180854. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0180854
4. Gillespie-Lynch K, Bublitz D, Donachie A, Wong V, Brooks PJ, Donofrio J. ‘‘For a long time our voices have been hushed’’: using student perspectives to develop supports for neurodiverse college students. Front Psychol. 2017;8:554. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00544
5. Fairchild LA, Powell MB, Gadke DL, Spencer JC, Stratton KK. Increasing social engagement among college students with autism. Adv Autism. 2020;6(2):83-93. doi:10.1108/AIA-09-2019-0030
6. Ncube BL, Shaikh KT, Ames ME, McMorris CA, Bebko JM. Social support in postsecondary students with spectrum disorder. Int J Ment Health Addict. 2019;17(3);573-584. doi:10.1007/s11469-018-9972-y
7. Ashbaugh K, Koegel R, Koegel L. Increasing social integration for college students with autism spectrum disorder. Behav Dev Bull. 2017;22(1):183-196. doi:10.1037/bdb0000057
8. Ness BM. Supporting self-regulated learning for college students with Asperger syndrome: exploring the ‘‘Strategies for College Learning’’ model. Mentor Tutor Partnersh Learn. 2013;21(4):356-377. Doi:abs/10.1080/13611267.2013.855865
9. Todd T, Miodrag N, Colgate Bougher S, Zambom A. A peer mentored physical activity intervention: an emerging practice for autistic college students. Autism Adulthood. 2019;1(3):232-237. doi:10.1089/aut.2018.0051