SFU mentorship program connects well with students with autism

April 02, 2015

By Diane Luckow

The transition from high school to university is challenging for all students, but for those with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), it can be extremely difficult to adjust successfully.

“They have a unique set of needs that often don’t get addressed,” says Suzanne Leach, a learning specialist with Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Students with Disabilities (CSD).

People with ASD typically have significant difficulties with social communication, and often have repetitive and restrictive interests and behaviours that can make it difficult to fit into mainstream society. Yet they are often quite capable academically, and sometimes have exceptional academic skills.

The one-on-one support and counseling that many students with ASD receive in grade school is not commonly available at university. Left on their own, says Leach, these students can experience considerable difficulty communicating with teaching assistants, professors and fellow students; completing and handing in assignments by deadline, and generally navigating academic issues and requirements.

The number of students with ASD registered at the CSD has tripled over the past five years and now represents approximately eight per cent of new registrants. Yet, says Leach, addressing their needs takes up a much greater proportion of staff time than other students’ disabilities.

That’s why, two years ago, CSD staff approached psychology professor Grace Iarocci, director of SFU’s Autism and Developmental Disorders Lab, and professor Elina Birmingham, director of the Social Attention Research Group ( for assistance.

“We had to start helping these students bridge the gap from high school to university so that they could be more successful, and feel more engaged and connected,” says Leach.

After brainstorming, they settled on a mentorship program that would pair students who have ASD with senior undergraduates and graduate students who could assist them with their adjustment to university, and put their experiences in perspective.

The program currently has about 10 student mentors, usually from the Department of Psychology or Faculty of Education. They make a two-term commitment to spend up to five hours a week with their mentee. All mentors receive formal training and on-going supervision from associated psychology and education faculty members.

Mentors offer advice, companionship and assistance with everything from managing the mentee’s time, to improving their communication skills to exploring employment possibilities or choosing courses and potential career paths.

The program also offers mentor/mentee social events, such as games nights or movie nights.

The program appears to be working, says Iarocci. She and Elina Birmingham, professor of education, have just completed a survey of both mentors and mentees.

“From the mentees’ responses to our interviews, it looks very positive,” says Iarocci, “and this is not an easy clientele to please.”

“We found they use the mentors a lot during times of stress. One mentee who was on academic probation really used his mentor to help him get through it—both for moral support and for practical assistance with study schedules and so on. We don’t think he would have made it without that constant support.”

Some mentors, she says, bond exceptionally well with their mentees, discovering common interests and developing casual friendships.

Iarocci expects that universities will continue to see an increase in students with ASD because today’s youth are receiving much earlier diagnosis and intervention, which improves their ability to cope with their disability.