Supporting Neurodiversity: Insights from the Autism Mentorship Initiative with Dr. Elina Birmingham

December 04, 2023

On the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, we explore the Autism Mentorship Initiative (AMI) with Dr. Elina Birmingham, co-founder and Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at SFU.

Established in 2013 as a joint initiative with co-founder Dr. Grace Iarocci, Professor of Psychology, and the Center for Accessible Learning (CAL), AMI provides tailored support to autistic students through peer mentorship, addressing challenges beyond academic accommodations.

Q: What inspired the creation of AMI?

A: AMI, an acronym deliberately chosen to reflect the idea of cultivating friendships between mentors and mentees, was founded in response to our observation that autistic students possess specific support needs that go beyond the traditional academic accommodations provided by disability offices. For example, autistic students often struggle with navigating social interactions and communicating in neurotypically accepted ways, dealing with transitions, managing their time, sensory overload, and keeping up with personal care. They also experience stigma and lack of acceptance from others and significantly higher rates of mental health conditions like anxiety and depression.

Q: How have collaborative efforts between faculty/departments and CAL contributed to the ongoing success of the program?

A: CAL initially approached us to collaborate on this initiative. They were instrumental in co-designing the program. The joint perspectives and expertise from Education, Psychology, and disability advisors, were key to creating a thoughtful program.  As the field’s thinking about autism has evolved, we consistently revisit the program and mentor training, aligning it with the neurodiversity framework that recognizes that people experience and interact with the world around them in many different ways, and that there is no “correct” way.

Q: What roles do senior undergraduate and graduate students play as mentors?

A: Mentors receive autism, neurodiversity and mentorship training at the beginning of each year, equipping them to serve as friendly faces on campus. They provide reliable guidance and ongoing support as well as connect mentees with university resources. As they assist autistic students in navigating postsecondary challenges, AMI mentors share valuable insights gained from successfully transitioning to university life. We include both neurotypical and neurodivergent mentors.

This specialized training allows mentors to offer autism-informed support, guiding mentees through challenges such as effective semester planning, navigating overwhelming assignments, communicating with Teaching Assistants (TAs), handling group work, making social connections, and accessing health and counselling services at SFU. Beyond the formal mentoring structure, many mentor-mentee pairs form lasting friendships and bonds, which is great to witness.

“My experiences in the program were great; my mentor was a fantastic match and I felt very supported throughout my first year at SFU. I am very fortunate that I was able to continue that connection beyond the program. I went from being terrified of school to feeling more confident and adjusted. My mentor was always there for me, whether it was a trip to Starbucks to catch up and celebrate our wins, or to provide a listening ear whenever I was having a hard time in a subject or in general, and for that, I could not have been more grateful. She was also very understanding and never saw me as less than because I am autistic, which I think is the most important quality of all. I had a great experience, and I would strongly recommend this program.” 

– Shana Harrison, former AMI mentee

Q: How can students become involved as mentors or mentee?

A: Every year, we invite potential mentors to apply to volunteer, and we are always excited to receive applications from autistic students looking for a mentor! It is not too late to sign up to have a mentor – we take applications year-round and do our very best to match autistic students as soon as possible! We find that many autistic students may not realize until late in their first semester (or even into their second semester) that they could use some more personalized guidance, so “late” applications are very common.

Q: How can the SFU community actively contribute to fostering inclusivity for individuals on the autism spectrum in higher education?

A: There is so much that we can do as a university community to be more neurodiversity-affirming. Firstly, we need to educate ourselves on what autistic students experience in university settings. Secondly, it’s crucial to break down barriers, whenever possible, for those students. This can include designing our courses to be more accessible to students with diverse needs, being aware of communication needs and preferences among neurodivergent students, as well as sensory differences (e.g., sensory overload in loud classrooms), and importantly, acknowledging the strengths of neurodivergent students that can enhance our own teaching and student experiences more generally. 

As a member of the SFU Accessibility Committee, our goal is to identify barriers for SFU community members with disabilities and to suggest solutions for how to remove and prevent such barriers.  We invite the SFU community to provide feedback to the committee, so please consider doing so.