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?

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