The students are part of the College Support Program for Students on the Autism Spectrum, a service of the Douglass Developmental Disabilities Center (DDDC) in New Brunswick. While the program has been a part of the university since 2009, it has undergone several recent changes from a new name and a new program coordinator to the addition of parent meetings and monthly social events.
“Students in the program who wanted to meet each other didn’t really have many opportunities to do that, or to meet other peer mentors beyond the one that was assigned to them,” said Pamela Lubbers, who has been coordinator for the College Support Program since June 2011.
Now, students and their mentors have the chance to do that through events hosted by campus groups, such as the Rutgers Empowering Disabilities' (RED) wheelchair race and a recent open mic fundraiser sponsored by PACT (Peer Awareness, Compassion, and Tolerance) for Autism. Event proceeds are donated to the DDDC, which marks its 40th anniversary this year.
The program serves students on the autism spectrum on several levels, from setting goals for academic achievement to teaching them how the Rutgers bus system works to providing a peer mentor for moral support.
At Rutgers, there are six students with Asperger's Syndrome – a mild form of autism characterized by social awkwardness that affects a person's ability to communicate effectively with others – enrolled in the College Support Program. The program is for matriculating Rutgers students and is fee-based, with the fee each semester paid by students’ families or guardians.Max Skula, an engineering student who was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome as a toddler, said that one of the benefits of the program is being able to talk to his peer mentor Lindsey Lobe about “what I’m going through, what I feel what I’m anxious about, and things that other people might not be able to grasp.”
The program comprises 11 peer mentors who meet weekly with Lubbers for training. The mentors can join the program as volunteers or for credit through a fieldwork course.
In the past, peer mentors worked purely on a volunteer basis, said Rita Gordon, director of Outreach Services at DDDC. But program coordinators saw an added value in offering course credit in learning how to be a mentor, and they began to offer it as an option in fall 2011. They also began recruiting peer mentors from the pool of RED and PACT members.
“Social interaction is very difficult for most of our students,” Lubbers said. “So if maybe a student is interested in a club or activity, a peer mentor would say, ‘I’m happy to go to that first meeting with you.’ ”
For Skula, participating in the program allows him to pursue his goals and still get help in the areas he needs it most. For instance, he wanted to pledge some academic fraternities this semester and he turned to Lubbers and Lobe for support.
“I didn’t get into the fraternities, but if it wasn’t for them I probably wouldn’t have had the courage to go in and pledge,” said Skula, who is from West Windsor.
Skula and Lobe meet weekly, usually to get something to eat and talk. Jessica Kirsch, a psychology major and peer mentor in the program, sometimes joins them as well.
While the time spent together has been extremely useful to Skula, he’s not the only one benefiting. The peer mentors benefit on both a personal level and a professional level.
“I have always wanted to go into a career that works with people with special needs or disabilities,” Kirsch said. “It’s different from what other schools might have, so I think it makes you really stand out in the realm of applying for jobs and going to graduate school.”
Lobe, who is also a psychology major, agreed that mentoring through the program helps with leadership and role model skills, which help when you’re looking for a job.
Families of children and young adults on the autism spectrum – and the programs that support them – have made headlines recently as the American Psychiatric Association announced last month that it had proposed new diagnostic criteria for autism and autism spectrum disorders.
The association argues that the proposed changes are not likely to change the number of patients receiving care for autism spectrum disorders and says a final decision on these criteria are coming in 2013 with the publishing of APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM 5).
Still, parents of children with milder forms of autism – such as Asperger's Syndrome – have expressed fears that a narrower definition will mean fewer benefits for their kids.