Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Being a Competent Communicator


As you know, I'm a Toastmaster, and specifically a Competent Communicator. That means I've successfully completed ten speech projects, including vocal variety, research and use of visual aids.

As you may not know, I've been going to a new club for the past three and a half months, at the president's invitation. It's in the next county, but the twice-monthly drive is well worth it. This is a very nice, diverse - and well-organized - bunch of people. And to be sure, my first speech to them was about AS, how it affects others as well as me and how we can deal with it.

Coming out is not for everyone, to be sure. I've decided to do it because I've found that people - with a few unfortunate exceptions - tend to react better to me knowing I'm an Aspie than not knowing.

Today's the first anniversary of my Competent Communicator award. Meanwhile, I think I've found my niche - Table Topics and humorous speaking. Table Topics is impromptu speaking - going up on stage, being told (or shown) for the first time what to speak about and speaking for one to two minutes - right then and there.

I used to make all my speeches - impromptu and prepared - as serious as they could be, and preferred to talk about things like historical events and other interesting facts as opposed to my experiences. Then I found that the speakers who got the best responses injected some humor into their speeches, and focused on their personal experiences (like, say, getting a traffic ticket, learning to dive at the U.S. Naval Academy or becoming a grandmother) and how they reacted to them.

When I get on stage, I don't just talk about being an Aspie. I've also discussed how I react to colors and the lighter side of domestic life. I've also found that the likelihood of winning a contest is directly proportional to the laughs coming from the audience. Last night, I won our club's Best Table Topics contest (which we have every meeting) for the third time since I joined - and I won it at my very first meeting there.

One of the most important things I've gotten there, though, is a firm heads-up when I needed it. For example, last night I gave an evaluation of another speaker. Evaluations are arranged in advance just like speeches are, and they're delivered on stage too. I decided to be innovative, and present my evaluation like a TV reporter "interviewing" various imaginary characters. I got laughs, all right.

And afterwards, a dressing-down from the president, who pointed out that (1) the new members in the audience might not have gotten the actual points I was making about how to be a better speaker and (2) evaluations are supposed to be about the original speaker, not the evaluator, and thus the humorous and dramatic approach is much more appropriate for other genres than for evaluations.

When I got home that night, I sent her an e-card thanking her.

You see, my father used to install alarm systems for people's homes and businesses, for which they paid thousands of dollars; the club president, who even before I joined knew I was an Aspie and kindly agreed to be part of an alarm system for my behavior, gets not one thin dime.

What do you think?

Monday, April 20, 2009

Western New England College's Peer Mentoring Program for Aspies, Part III


To complete this series, let's talk with Dr. Bonni Alpert, Director of Western New England College (WNEC)'s Office of Student Disability Services. Dr. Alpert oversees, among other things, their Peer Mentoring Program for Students On the Autism Spectrum (please see the bottom half of that page). Dr. Alpert speaks from the point of view of an administrator and counselor.

Q: What inspired this particular program? Did you read something, or see or hear of something happen on campus or elsewhere, that gave you an "ah hah" moment and led you to start this peer mentoring program?

A: About 2 1/2 years ago I was working with a college junior, who happened to have Asperger’s Syndrome. This student was brilliant – especially in the area of History - and his professors were always astounded by his wealth of knowledge and his ability to articulate his thoughts on paper.

However, by mid semester of that particular year, things began to unravel. While this student had often had bouts of depression during previous semesters, this time his depression caused him to withdraw completely into the safety of his room (he did not have a roommate per accommodation request). He wouldn’t even come out to go to classes. In other words, he completely isolated himself from everything and everyone (including me).

In collaboration with his parents and professors, we were able to get him in to see one of our College counselors. After doing some research of her own, this counselor forwarded an article to me entitled “Supporting College Students with Asperger’s Syndrome,” by Lawrence A. Welkowitz and Linda J. Baker, in which the authors describe a peer mentoring program initiated by them at Keene State College.

In speaking about the experience for students on the spectrum, as they enter the world of college, they state “thrust into an 'adult-like' community with little or no parental-type supervision, the college student with AS is like a boat without sails that has been set off to sea.”

I remember thinking to myself “Of course!!!! Why didn’t I think of this before?!” It suddenly dawned on me that students on the spectrum may need more than just the typical academic accommodations - that feeling ‘connected’ and getting help with certain life skills communication, organization, interpersonal, etc) was equally pertinent to a successful college experience. That was when I approached Ava Kleinmann, Assistant Professor of Psychology, about the idea of starting a mentoring program for students on the spectrum.

Q: What are the most important challenges that Aspies face in college, especially as they start? What about after they graduate?

A: Individuals on the spectrum can often struggle in areas of social interactions and communication. Specifically, this disorder affects a person’s ability to understand social norms, such as meaning from tone, body language or context in discussions. Consequently, these skills have a significant impact on all aspects of college life from academic achievement to friendships and overall social and emotional functioning.

When students leave their homes after graduating from high school and enter the world of college, they are expected to navigate new and unfamiliar social environments (new peers, professors and staff) without the familiar supports of their youth. However, because interpreting non-verbal cues and knowing social appropriateness often present major challenges to students on the spectrum, navigating this unfamiliar terrain can be incredibly stressful.

Furthermore, any sense of failure in these areas often results in a tendency for a student on the spectrum to withdraw and isolate themselves. This, in turn, can lead to many isolating social interests, such as excessive Internet use or fascination with video games. While these activities can be mind expanding in some ways, they do little for promoting social interaction and a sense of belonging.

There are also academic situations that can contribute to the stress of a student on the spectrum. For example, many classes have group discussions or group projects and, having to interact with other students, when you prefer to work alone, can be a source of significant stress. In addition, having to ask a professor for help is something that may add stress to any student’s day, but especially if the student is not quite sure of the social rules that apply in that particular situation.

The skills involved in social interaction and communication not only affect a student’s college experience but, they also have a significant impact on life after college. For instance, the ability to present oneself appropriately and professionally in a job interview or, to work as part of a team, collaborate with others and/or to communicate one’s thoughts clearly and appropriately are essential to most jobs.

In addition, the ability to establish and maintain “significant” (this is subject to interpretation) relationships is essential to life satisfaction. While there may be variability in terms of the quantity and quality of these relationships, we all want to feel connected, that we matter, that we belong.

Q: You mentioned that Aspies can withdraw into isolating social interests such as excessive Internet use or video games. Given that Aspies *tend to* like working with computers (and at least as of now have disproportionately better career prospects in these fields), in what ways can Aspies actually channel such activities so as to achieve better social interaction and a sense of belonging?

A: One way that "Aspie's" might channel computer related activities in more socially constructive ways is by joining clubs with other like-minded individuals, in which a specific computer-related activity can facilitate a manageable degree of interaction among its members.

For example, here at WNEC, we have the Anime (Japanese animation) club. This is a popular club among students on the spectrum and, I imagine this is because it offers just enough social interaction as not to be threatening (sometimes this involves just getting together and watching animated DVDs) and centers around a more cerebral/intellectual activity.

Also, instead of playing video games in isolation, students can always invite other students to play. I am currently working with a student who was recently commenting that his peers didn't seem interested in spending time with him. He said that they often knocked on his door to ask if they could borrow his video games. However, when questioned as to whether he had ever invited them to play these games with him, he admitted that he hadn't.

Q: Could you give a brief particular example or two of difficulties that Aspies can face in college (perhaps a suitably anonymized anecdote or two)?

A: A student walks into a class before the professor arrives and notices a group of students sitting and laughing together. He'd like to get involved in the discussion, as it looks like these other students are enjoying each other's company. However, he's not quite sure how to make his way in.

As he sits quietly, listening to their discussion, he realizes that they're talking about the professor, making fun of his mannerisms, his clothes, his expressions. He figures that if he does the same thing, he'll be part of the group too.

Then, although he realizes that the professor has entered the room, he begins to do just what he saw his peers do. He also notices that the lewder his comments become, the more his classmates laugh. What he doesn't realize is that his peers are laughing in disbelief - more from embarrassment for him than anything else. In his mind, he has just connected with his peers.

[As another example:] A student is feeling overwhelmed with his academic workload. He hasn't been to see me all semester, even though I've suggested, on many occasions, that we meet on a weekly basis. One day he's feeling so stressed that he believes that if he doesn't see me right at that moment his whole world will fall apart (we've all been there so, no judgment).

However, when he shows up at my office he's told that I'm meeting with another student. Instead of sitting and waiting, as another student might do, this student paces back and forth in front of my door, huffing and puffing and making as much noise as he can muster.

When a student staff person tells him that I'll be awhile and offers him a place to sit, he lets her know that he needs to see me right now and that every time he wants to meet with me I'm either not in my office or busy with another student.

Both of these examples illustrate the difficulties that students on the spectrum may experience with understanding social norms, interpreting non-verbal cues and knowing social appropriateness.

Q: Have you worked with Student Affairs about relevant student conduct issues, such as misconduct accusations against Aspies that may be relevant to their AS (eg, harassment, stalking, disorderly behavior), and/or Aspies saying they have been the victims of possibly relevant misconduct (eg, harassment, verbal abuse, assault [sexual or otherwise])? If so, what kinds of accusations are most commonly involved, and how has the AS part of it been handled?

A: I have worked with Student Affairs and Public Safety on issues related to misconduct accusations against students on the spectrum. Specifically, we’ve had issues related to disorderly behavior (trying to enter a restricted area, manipulating the lighting during a campus event, playing with the HVAC controls in public access spaces (i.e., the Campus Center)) and presumed stalking. While all students are held to the same code of conduct, it has been helpful for my office to be involved in these situations on two counts.

First, we’ve been able to provide Student Affairs and Public Safety personnel with critical information about the student and their specific intent in the situation. For example, the student who was caught trying to enter a restricted area was doing so because he was feeling overwhelmed and anxious and wanted a quiet space in which to decompress. The fact that this space was restricted was irrelevant to his overwhelming need.

Furthermore, the student who was accused of manipulating the lighting during a campus event was also doing so in an attempt to reduce his own stress. It never occurred to him that his behavior was inappropriate.

And, the student who was accused of stalking a female student was walking behind someone he thought was his friend, trying to figure out how to strike up a conversation with her.

In each of these situations, it was helpful for the relevant authorities to understand the functional impact of the AS and the specific intent of the student when deciding how to handle the situation. In each of these cases, the student was informed of the severity of the situation, with respect to the impact of his actions on others, and given a warning about the potential consequence of future misconduct.

Another reason that it’s been helpful for my office to be involved in these situations is that we’ve been able to provide the student with AS critical information about rules of conduct and why they’re important and to help them learn how to respond appropriately in stressful situations.

For example, we were able to help one student find several quiet and unrestricted places on campus to which he could retreat when he was feeling overwhelmed. We were also able to help another student understand how frightening it might be to have someone following silently so close behind you, even if you knew them. In addition, we worked with this student on strategies for striking up conversations with girls and to know when it was appropriate (or not) to do so.

Q: Do you know of any adjustments Public Safety has made for dealing with Aspies? Do you think there are helpful adjustments that they could make in the future?

A: I'm not sure that Public Safety has made any specific official adjustments with respect to dealing with "Aspies". However, I do think that it has been very useful for Public Safety, Student Affairs and other student support personnel to be aware of the ways in which students on the spectrum may interpret certain situations, as this has a significant impact on the evaluation of one's intent.

Furthermore, I have found that when Public Safety has been made aware of the student's perspective of the situation and the reasons for this perspective, they have often been more willing to approach situations from the student's vantage point.

For instance, instead of looking at the situation from a black/white, right/wrong perspective and, instead of assuming that the student knows that what he/she did was wrong, I've seen officers approach the student with more of an educational stance, in which they inform the student of the accusation, explain how the behavior was interpreted by the accuser and why this might be considered offensive.

Q: You mentioned stalking as having been a concern. I don't know what other stalking or harassment cases you know of that may have involved Aspies. Do you think that the ways in which NTs (especially but not only women) typically communicate disinterest could lead to misunderstanding on an Aspie's part so they may not get the message and then the NTs, thinking they already let the Aspie know they don't want to be contacted, accuse him/her of harassment or stalking?

And if so, what should Aspies know that will likely prevent these problems? And what should NTs know so as to best communicate disinterest?

A: With respect to the stalking, I agree that the problem often stems from miscommunication (or, indirect communication) and misunderstanding. Often girls and women are afraid of hurting peoples' feelings. Furthermore, they're often taught to communicate in somewhat indirect ways - when we get too direct we're referred to as "aggressive" or "bitchy".

Therefore, if a girl is trying to be kind and let a guy down carefully, it's quite likely that she hasn't been totally clear about her feelings and intentions. Furthermore, if you put a guy, who struggles more than the "average Joe" with reading social cues, into the equation, the result can be catastrophic. She doesn't say exactly what she feels, but instead puts out subtle messages, and he doesn't know how to interpret the subtle messages and may believe that he still has a chance.

So, the girl says to the guy, "I like you and I'd just like to be friends" and what the guy hears is, "I like you" and something to do with "friends." In his mind, this is a good thing, since he doesn't hear the unspoken part of that message which is "I'm not attracted to you and I don't want to be intimate with you."

I'm not so sure that it's possible for NTs and/or Aspies to know enough about each other to prevent these types of problems from occurring altogether. However, I do feel that improving upon one's communication skills should be a lifelong process for everyone. And, not only should we all seek to communicate our thoughts, ideas and feelings as clearly as possible but, we should also continually be asking clarifying questions of others in order to ensure that we are hearing what was intended to be heard (just like you did above).

Furthermore, I believe that the more we can share ourselves (our strengths and challenges as people, Aspie or not) with others, the less room there is for misinterpretation and misunderstanding and, the more room there is for acceptance, appreciation and intimacy.

(All emphases added.)

I'd like to thank Dr. Alpert, Ms. Langone and Dr. Kleinmann very much for their time, effort and courtesy. Keep up the good work!

What do you think?

Monday, April 13, 2009

Western New England College's Peer Mentoring Program for Aspies, Part II


Now, we'll hear from Krysten Langone, MA, Assistant Director of Western New England College (WNEC)'s Office of Student Disability Services. Ms. Langone plays a leading role in WNEC's Peer Mentoring Program for Students On the Autism Spectrum (please see the bottom half of that page). She speaks as an instructor.

Q: What do you think are the most important challenges that NT classmates of Aspie college students face in dealing with them? What about NTs associating with Aspies in a variety of settings after graduation?

A: From the perspective of a Freshman Composition instructor, I think that one of the main challenges I have witnessed that NT students face when interacting with Aspie students in a classroom setting, is misinterpreting an Aspie student’s actions and/or comments during class discussion and/or group work.

I think that it can be very easy for an NT student to misinterpret an Aspie student’s difficulty with initiating group contact as a lack of interest in participating as an active member of the group. When group interaction does occur, I think that other misinterpretations can occur, such as, taking an Aspie student’s comments as a carrying a tone of arrogance and/or superiority. I also think that NTs can be caught off guard by some of the comments that Aspie students can make during group interaction and during class discussion.

Many times, an Aspie student’s comments can be interpreted by NT students as being very off the cuff, off topic or unrelated to the content of the class. I also believe that NT students can feel as though an Aspie student’s comments can have a pessimistic tone at times.

I think that these misinterpretations create a sense of confusion for NT students in how to react or interact with Aspie students. Thus, preventing the NT students from trying to interact with the Aspie students unless absolutely necessary, and even then, they may do so reluctantly or with some hesitation. These misinterpretations and scenarios certainly spill over into any life arena.

Q: You are quite right when you say that Aspies should understand how NTs can misinterpret what they do and say. What are the most important and/or the most common ways in which NTs can misinterpret Aspies' statements and actions?

A: I have noticed many times in the classroom setting where NT’s roll their eyes or snicker when an Aspie student makes a remark during class discussion. This usually happens because the Aspie student is quite vocal in the classroom, but isn’t always following the train of thought behind the discussion, thus, causing their comment to seem quite off base. I can see that the NT students begin to view this Aspie student as “off the wall” or a “little wacky” due to the confusing content of the Aspie’s remarks.

Also, I have experienced an Aspie student try to make sense of what the class is talking about by putting it into a context that they can understand by relating it to something that makes sense for them, like comic books or fantasy video games. When this happens, I can see the NT’s immediately place this Aspie student into a stereotyped block of the “stoner gamer”, who they view as someone who has no real sense of what is going on in the world. Of course, this unfortunately leads to the Aspie student being viewed as someone who doesn’t need to be listened to or taken seriously.

On the flip side, I have experienced Aspie students being seen as “know it alls” or “brown noser’s,” due to their insightful comments and extreme attention to detail. There is a student in my course at the moment who is very bright and picks up on the subtle nuances of the literature we are discussing far more quickly and deeply than most of his classmates. He is always quick to answer questions in class that receive positive acknowledgement from me. His classmates will roll their eyes when they see his hand go up and hear me call on him.

This student has no trouble speaking up in class, but, has a very hard time working in groups. When I assign group work in class, he doesn’t move to go sit with the individuals that I have asked him to work with and these other students will not go to him.

I know that the NT students seem this Aspie student as viewing himself too good for them and not wanting to waste time working in a group when he can do a better job by himself. They see this as arrogance.

While, the Aspie student has admitted seeing no value in the group work because he could just as easily complete it himself, this is not why he isn’t going to work with the people that I have asked him to work with. He is completely unsure and uneasy about having to be a part of a small group that he has no prior knowledge of. He doesn’t know how to begin except for beginning the work on his own.

Also, he will often monopolize my time when we are in the writing lab one day a week to work on essays, because he wants to make sure he is getting every idea right and that every sentence he writes is correct.

The NT students recognize that I am working with him quite a bit and can sometimes view this student as trying to “suck up” to the teacher, rather than see it in a positive light that he is taking advantage of the opportunity for my immediate feedback, unlike most of the NT students who are checking their email or Facebook instead of working on their essays.

Q: What things do you believe are most important for Aspies to understand about the NT world, and what adjustments do you think it’s most important for them to make?

A: I think it very important that Aspies become aware of how NTs misinterpret them and why. This can be such a valuable thing for Aspies to know during college and even more so after college and upon entering the work force. I believe that once Aspies become aware of how some NTs view their actions or comments, and how this view effects how NTs interact or don’t interact with Aspies, that Aspies will be able to gain more confidence in social settings.

Q: Conversely, what things do you believe are most important for NTs to understand about Aspies, and what things could NTs do that would be most helpful for building good relationships with Aspies?

A: This is directly related to my answer above. NTs have got to be able to be comfortable with taking the initiative in getting to know and interact with Aspies in academic, social and professional settings. They also must understand that some of their everyday social initiative techniques are not always going to be met with the same response from Aspies that they may receive from NTs. NTs must learn to be patient with themselves and understand that the frustration they may feel when trying to interact with Aspies shouldn’t prevent them from continually trying.

Q: You have a very good point when you say that NTs should keep trying to reach out to Aspies. What specific challenges should NTs prepare themselves for in the process? What characteristics of Aspies should they keep in mind?

A: I guess something that I didn’t quite think about before is that an NT is going to have no idea that a person they know from class, work or any other setting, has Aspergers, unless this person is aware them self or wants to divulge that information.

One thing that needs to be made clear is that we as a people need to become more educated and accepting of all individuals, whether they may or may not fall on the spectrum. Just because one doesn’t receive the response from an individual that they were expecting means that qualifies the individual to give up or write that person off.

We all just need to be more patient, kind and open minded. We need to not assume that because a person seems to be avoiding social interaction that they are anti-social or conceited or anything else. We have to stop jumping to conclusions, slow down and accept people for who they are, not what we expect them to be.

[All emphases added]

Aspies and NTs alike need to listen carefully to Ms. Langone, as she describes the classroom dynamics that can ensue if mutual misunderstandings are allowed to persist.

Among other things, Aspies need to dispel notions that:

  • We think we're superior to the other people around them,

  • We don't like other people in general,

  • We only think about a narrow range of things, like video games or model airplanes,

  • We are pessimistic,

  • We don't listen to others (a possible interpretation for our missing the undertones of conversations) and

  • We just want to suck up to the teacher or the higher-ups (an ironic impression, given how bluntly we Aspies can express ourselves, including to those in authority, but an importamt impression nonetheless).

At the same time, NTs should avoid jumping to conclusions. If someone avoids group activities or keeps asking the teacher lots of questions, for example, there are reasons for this other than snobbishness or brown-nosing, respectively.

In fact, that's true for NTs as well as Aspies. Even if everyone on the autism spectrum was cured tomorrow, people would misunderstand each other often enough to keep sitcoms a going concern.

So, many of the ways in which we can accommodate Aspies now, such as looking for alternative ways to interpret unusual behavior, speaking more directly and honestly and making our own motives and desires more transparent, are also good ways to accommodate each other.

What do you think?

Monday, April 6, 2009

Western New England College's Peer Mentoring Program for Aspies, Part I


It's April - National Autism Awareness Month.

Also, if you're a high school senior (at least in the U.S.), you've probably just gotten your college admission decisions and you're deciding where you'll go.

You don't need me to tell you that it's a tough decision. If you're an Aspie, maybe we can make your decision a little easier.

Western New England College (WNEC), like most colleges, has an Office of Student Disability Services (SDS - yes, those initials have a new meaning on today's college campuses). Unlike most colleges, it has a well-regarded Peer Mentoring Program for Students On the Autism Spectrum (there's another program, for students with AD/HD, described on the top half of the same page).

The three program leaders, SDS Director Dr. Bonni Alpert, SDS Assistant Director (and WNEC alum) Krysten Langone, MA, and Assistant Professor of Psychology (and Certified School Psychologist) Dr. Ava Kleinmann, so graciously agreed to spare a good bit of their scarce time and energy answering my questions. Their professionalism is a credit to WNEC.

Today, I'm going to present Professor Kleinmann's views. In the next part of our series, I will present Ms. Langone's perspective, and after that I will culminate the series with Dr. Alpert. Professor Kleinmann is an experienced school psychologist, and she speaks from a therapeutic perspective.

Q: What do you think are the most important challenges that NT classmates of Aspie college students face in dealing with them? What about NTs associating with Aspies in a variety of settings after graduation?

A: One of the major challenges in the college setting is communication. This can manifest in a number of ways from peer staff (eg RAs) having to repeat certain rules to working together on group projects for class. Group work is commonly cited as a challenge for college students, and this is magnified when one of the group members has difficulties with a variety of social and executive functioning skills. NT classmates have reported frustration when there is a lack of follow through from classmates on things as basic as returning a phone call or completing a simple task that was delegated to them.

There are also subtle behaviors that can be challenging for NT classmates to interpret including inappropriate eye contact or excessive politeness. A related challenge is that at our institution the students on the spectrum have chosen not to disclose their status to many peers, which can make for unrealistic expectations by NT classmates.

Assisting students on the spectrum with their transition out of postsecondary education is another important goal of the program. The first step is to support students in making it through some of the proximate challenges encountered every day from social relationships to schoolwork.

In the workplace, efforts should be made to best support the person on the spectrum, which may include setting up a job coach, to matching a job to their interests/skills, and helping the employer to see the benefit of hiring someone with an AS diagnosis. A lack of understanding of the needs and special skills of individuals on the spectrum can lead to difficulties similar to those encountered in college.

Q: What qualities have you found most important in a peer mentor?

A: Our program is comprised of highly motivated, talented and mature students seeking out the didactic and clinical experiences offered through the Asperger’s Peer Mentoring Program. Those mentors who model the same behaviors that are often goals for students with Asperger’s Syndrome are particularly well suited to be mentors.

One of the goals of the program is to teach students on the spectrum a variety of social, problem solving, and executive functioning skills critical to the college environment and beyond. This skills set should already be fairly well developed in the mentors based on successful completion of some of the college career. This in addition to consultation with doctoral level supervisors will allow them to support and serve as positive role models throughout participation in the program.

It is also expected that the mentors adhere to the highest ethical standards and we use the APA [American Psychological Association] code of conduct which is the standard for practicing psychologists. Exercising good clinical judgment, seeking assistance from the team, and utilizing problem-solving skills are all important qualities of mentors that are further cultivated through their experience in this program.

Q: How have peer mentors generally developed and challenged themselves during their service?

A: The challenges that the peer mentors have encountered have been as diverse as the opulation that’s been served. Some of the mentors have reported being challenged by altering the expectations for the nature of the interactions they have with students on the spectrum.

They have also been challenged by having dynamic goals based on changing mentees and changing circumstances in that person’s life. For example, an initial goal of having a mentee approach professors appropriately and independently may be substituted for a goal of developing prerequisitie skill of self-monitoring and problem identification.

Peer mentors have also developed a unique personal perspective on working with these peers, which has challenged their preconceived notions and at times their patience. An additional challenge has been training mentors to become student clinicians, which involves writing in clear, objective, and nonjudgmental behavioral terms while maintaining records and assisting

Q: That's quite interesting, looking at what the peer mentors have faced. In what ways would you say peer mentors are better people at the end of their service than at the beginning?

A: Some of the mentors have reported the unexpected benefit of learning more from their mentees than perhaps they were able to share themselves. As each semester of the peer mentoring program progressed mentors expressed changing their expectations and realizing that what they got out of the experience was more than they could have ever expected.

In terms of actual skills mentors improve writing skills, develop some proficiency with the use of psychological assessments, and have a much better understanding of the autism spectrum, social skills training and clinical work in general.

Some of them have gained insight into their own behaviors by being placed in the position of describing, analyzing and assisting with the development of various behaviors in the students they work with.

Q: Do you think peer mentors should in some cases have the ability to give some rewards or even punishments, such as free tickets to events for meeting a goal, or extra required educational sessions - perhaps at some expense to the mentee - for failing to meet a goal or for some kind of inappropriate behavior? To what extent do you feel behavior modification should be a part of mentoring?

A: The peer mentors do give rewards and punishments to the mentees, but perhaps these are not as programmed as they would be in traditional applied behavior analysis.

Mentors give in vivo, natural feedback to their mentors, but this is changing as the skills and needs of the mentees change and are better understood/defined, and as the therapeutic relationship progresses. Mentors are trained to look for natural opportunities to provide social praise, which could be as simple as thanking the person for showing up on time for a scheduled meeting.

Administering natural punishment is also recommended but should be mild, direct, and should be used to teach something. For example, when a mentor lets a mentee know the consequences of starting a meeting late or missing a meeting (eg the fact that if interrupts the mentor's schedule, can be frustrating etc) they are providing that person with valuable and constructive feedback that might not otherwise be delivered in a constructive, therapeutic manner.

Of course the extent to which these consequences for behavior are delivered are carefully discussed in the context of supervision meetings and clinical judgment is something that is being cultivated in the mentors. Our program used a variety of therapeutic approached with the mentors and mentees, but behavioral technologies including both antecedent strategies and positive consequences are central to effective service delivery.

Presently contrived rewards and punishments are not part of the program. Because the program strives to provide social skills training, support etc in vivo it is delivered in as natural a way as possible. Certainly introducing more programmed consequences is an option but is not currently a component.

I could see how using rewards such as coupons to the campus center or tickets to events in the area would be helpful. However, the use of punishments might not be the best route to go because while punishment may serve to suppress undesired behavior it does not increase target behaviors or really teach any new skills.

Q: More broadly, how do peer mentors best give feedback to mentees? Do they need to be more blunt than when talking to fellow NTs?

A: As mentioned previously being direct, specific, and giving that feedback as soon as possible is likely to have the best impact. Many individuals with Asperger’s have some difficulty interpreting the subtleties of language from tone to the nonverbal aspects of communication. Mentors are instructed to be clear and direct, but also look for natural opportunities to teach about the various shades of gray that exist with language and communication.

Sometimes being “blunt” may not have the desired effect, which is why a careful balancing of the therapeutic relationship with the need to provide that feedback is something that needs to constantly be evaluated.

Q: To what extent - if any - do you feel that Aspies can be successful peer mentors? What particular challenges and assets could Aspies bring to that role?

A: Great question. Many of our mentees have been highly successful at demonstrating a broader range and more appropriate social skills in a variety of contexts. They have provided valuable feedback to the program when "debriefing" about the experience to the SDS director.

If a student is motivated, interested, and willing to put in the work they would certainly be in a unique position to work with peers and share their own experiences if necessary. Certainly many of the same challenges that exist when working with NT mentors would also potentially be present with Aspie mentors, particularly since this is a new experience.

In particular, navigating the unclear areas of the therapeutic relationship as a mentor - but not officially a clinician - would be challenging since it’s impossible to anticipate every possible judgment issue to preteach problem solving strategies.

Q: What should mentees be prepared to do to make the mentoring relationship work?

A: That’s a tough question because it depends on so many factors, including what the mentor and mentee each bring to the table and what their expectations might be. Because these expectations can change throughout the course of the relationship communication about changing needs, challenges, etc is crucial.

Of course the complexity of this task is compounded by the existence of communication differences that already exist. Having realistic, achievable goals and being flexible in those goals is certainly an important component. Getting those out in the open early on is also important instead of making assumptions about what is important to each party.

This might be accomplished by creating a written yet dynamic “contract” about each party’s responsibility. Being able to make the time commitment to meet regularly and stay in touch is also important and this is where the mentors take the lead to get everyone on the same page.

Dr. Kleinmann made some notable points. I will just highlight a few:

  • In particular, while Dr. Kleinmann is not categorically against "artificial" incentives in a mentoring program, she feels that the best approach relies on natural consequences, including natural, real-time opportunities to reinforce desired behaviors. She believes that teaching general social skills and ways of thinking, not narrowly conceived behaviors, is most important, and that contrived punishments are ineffective because they only discourage undesired behaviors without pointing the way to better ones.

  • Dr. Kleinmann also believes that the peer mentoring relationship is to some extent also therapeutic. While doubtlessly she would not hesitate to have a peer mentor refer, say, a suicidal mentee to appropriate professionals, she does hold mentors to the standards of ethics expected of therapists. Also, while on the one hand Aspies may need to be told things more directly, even bluntly, than do NTs, she also believes that therapeutic considerations require limits on how mentors get their points across.

  • Aspies can certainly be peer mentors, too, as long as they can put in the time and effort. Aspie mentors will need to be able to exercise enough judgment to work well in a therapeutic setting, since not everything can be pre-taught. Scripts will only go so far.

  • For NT and Aspie mentors, the experience can be quite rewarding. For example, mentors can improve their communication and clinical skills and even learn more about themselves. While Dr. Kleinmann does not mention career implications, her views suggest that the experience can be especially good for future teachers, therapists and others - especially (but not only) if they might like to work with people on the autism spectrum.

  • Dr. Kleinmann also makes clear both that (1) NTs need to understand AS so as not to misinterpret unusual behavior on Aspies' part and (2) Aspie behavior, such as showing up late or even not at all for scheduled meetings, can be legitimately frustrating to NTs.

What do you think?

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Mentorship Musts


Scott Greenfield, an interesting lawyer, has some words of advice for new lawyers. Among other things (including a dispute with a new lawyer marketing practice), he discusses mentorship. Potential and current mentees in general - but especially Aspies and autists - should pay very close attention to what he says here:

The first failing of mentoring is that you need continuous and reliable supervision. Mentors are there to help you out when they can, meaning that they have their own lives and work, and you only get as much of their busy day as they are willing to give you. Trust me, you do not come before their children. Maybe not even close acquaintances. You may be the center of the universe to yourselves, but you may not be to the mentor, and they are not prepared to sacrifice their lives and times to convenience you.

The [mentee] has a million questions. Answering a million questions takes up a lot of time. This is time that could otherwise be spent by the mentor earning money and representing clients. Something has to give. Guess who that something will be.

Second, the mentor may be supportive, but supportive isn't necessarily honest. Someone has to tell you when you screw up. Someone has to tell you that you blew it . Someone has to tell you if you don't have what it takes. But whoever that someone is, you're not going to like it (even if you think now that you will appreciate it) and you will turn on them. The mentor has no reason to invite your angst. The mentor is doing you a favor, and while she may be happy to help, she isn't happy to argue the point.

Similarly, when there are too many questions, demands, issues, DRAMA, the mentor may quietly slip away, appeasing you by agreement while dying to get off the phone or avoid that cup of coffee. You may need answers. The mentor doesn't need headaches. Your needs and the mentor's needs are not coterminous, but you won't see it until the mentor refuses to take your calls anymore.

So if mentoring is so fraught with issues, why do I recommend it? Because there aren't any other options, and as much as it may be flawed, it's better than nothing. If the [mentee] bears these failings in mind, and conducts themselves within appropriate limits, it will facilitate the benefits of mentoring without invoking the problems. Of course, it's not easy for a [mentee] to perform such a metacognitive assessment, or to recognize other people's limits until it's too late.

Also, a mentor who is not very busy is the equivalent of the proverbial cobbler whose children go barefoot and the proverbial chef who's out to lunch. There are many more people who would love to run their mouths and tell other people how to run their lives than there are people who actually know what they are talking about. And the latter is not even a subset of the former - at most there's some overlap.

I'll just share a bit of my experience; keeping in mind the distinction I just made, if you've had good results doing something else - congratulations!

  • Good mentors need significant life experience. They don't need to be much older than you. But people who haven't had serious crises in their lives yet (a bad breakup or two, parents or other close relatives divorcing, recovery from an emotional or physical disorder or violent crime, the need to support oneself or at least have a job on which one has had conflicts and learned something, rethinking one's major or career choice, that kind of thing) simply don't have the perspective to help you.

  • Humility is essential. On the one hand, the mentor, by definition is not your equal. On the other hand, a mentor with ego problems and no sense of the limits to one's competence is a frightening thing indeed. Look for a mentor who's willing to occasionally say things like "As far as I know...but I could be mistaken since I haven't done that much," "A better person to ask would be...," - and especially "I made just that mistake, back when...." That last also shows the mentor takes responsibility for one's own life. Don't take on a mentor who always explains one's own conflicts and problems in terms of what the other person did.

  • Along these lines, the value of a given piece of advice is not necessarily related, and sometimes may be inversely related, to the eagerness with which it's offered. Truly humble people hesitate to tell others what to do, recalling their own errors and misjudgments. Everyone wants to influence others to some extent, and a good mentor wants to make a difference in your life for the better. But you need a good competence:will to power ratio in your mentor.

  • Perhaps mentors can be friends, but they should be people with at least a bit of detachment. For one thing, someone who likes you too much (or senses the reverse) is going to be reluctant to tell you the hard stuff, like Mr. Greenfield said above. For another thing, people who feel that close to you can more easily turn on you if you've offended them - or their friends or associates - enough. A more detached person will be more likely to give you a heads-up in time since one doesn't emotionally turn on the proverbial dime.

  • You don't need to tell your mentor everything, but do be absolutely honest in what you do say. That's less of a problem for us, but it bears noting. For one thing, trust lost is likely lost forever. For another thing, the mentor should know if you're an Aspie or autist. That way, one will know to turn up the honesty meter on you - and thus not to assume that a hint missed was a hint deliberately ignored. One can interpret many of your behaviors better, too.

  • If the mentor suggests doing something that you have difficulty with, respond that you'll give it careful consideration. And do just that. If you've seriously thought it over and still can't or won't do it, explain the situation. And such situations should be few and far between. Otherwise, there's a problem of one sort or another. And that problem may very well be your self-overestimation.

  • Last but not least, mentors need to be reasonable successes in their own lives. This goes back to the cobbler and the chef. They don't need to have been class valedictorian, Phi Beta Kappa, Harvard grads at the age of 20 with their own multi-million-dollar businesses whose names are household words and who have different dates every night. But people who can't help themselves are in no position to help others. Someone who can't hold down a job (and who isn't too old or disabled to work), whose schedule outside (or even inside) of class is as wide open as the Grand Canyon, who has no close friends or family, and/or is a nonrecovering alcoholic or drug abuser, likely is worth one thing to you - an excellent example of how not to live your life. At arm's length and preferably beyond.

Meanwhile, here's a mentor-in-a-book: Ben Stein's How to Ruin Your Life. His views on evolution and other things may be controversial - his life credentials are not. Also check out this commentary. (After I finished the book, I wondered if Mr. Stein had researched it by examining my life - a feeling which no doubt many readers have shared.)

What do you think?