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Practice Spotlight

Providing Autistic Students With Targeted Support: Specialist Peer Mentoring

A tailored program at the University of Newcastle is seeing improved social, academic and organisational achievements among its autistic cohort.

Katy Lambert and Georgie Kerr holding their staff Excellence Award
Katy Lambert and Georgie Kerr, University of Newcastle

The Specialist Peer Mentor Program, as it is known, began in 2017 and provides ongoing, regular, one-on-one mentorship for autistic students at the University of Newcastle, preparing them for the activities they will need to navigate student life. This can include support in communicating with others via email; using university systems; making phone calls; providing social support; giving assistance with organisation and planning; having a regular point of contact to resolve difficulties without having to seek out assistance during difficult periods; and identifying and accessing other services available at the university.

Students who enter the program are assigned a mentor, who they meet with weekly. They are also given the opportunity to attend a weekly two-hour social group organised and facilitated by two student mentors.

The program has benefits for both mentees and mentors. Mentors must take part in a one-day training program and then fortnightly group supervision to maintain accountability over the program. Mentors also submit weekly reports on their interactions with their mentees and are paid for their work. Mentors develop knowledge of autism and experience with supporting autistic students. The program seeks to equip our future graduates with the skills and knowledge necessary to advocate for autism awareness and inclusivity in their future. Mentors are predominantly recruited from relevant degrees e.g. Occupational Therapy, Psychology, Social Work, Education.

Meanwhile, mentees have told the program’s management team that they feel a sense of connection and security through the program. Specifically, they appreciate knowing that someone at the university is checking in with them and helping them overcome any barriers they might face. Mentees have reported improved university progression and results, with some even saying they would not have continued their degree without the support they received. Mentees have been more likely to complete the courses they are enrolled in, with problems being resolved before they escalate and lead to burnout, impacting their grades and progression.

Mentees have highlighted the impact the program has had on them socially at the university. A small number reported prior to meeting their mentor they had never talked to another student, despite some studying at the university for several years. Some have also benefitted from friendships formed with other mentees through the social group, or in other student clubs that their mentor has supported them to join and attend.

The program’s reach goes beyond students with teaching staff appreciating improvements in student-teacher communication. This results in increased awareness of students who might be struggling and enables teaching staff to provide timely assistance. Some have reported reductions in the need for extensions on assessment items, due to the planning and organisation strategies mentors and mentees work on together.

The team behind the program

The Specialist Peer Mentor Program is coordinated by Georgie Kerr and Katy Lambert. Both Georgie and Katy have extensive experience in disability advisory. Georgie is an Occupational Therapist who has worked for six years in the AccessAbility team and Student Wellbeing team at the University of Newcastle, while Katy has worked at the university for 15 years, with much of that time spent as a Disability/AccessAbility Advisor.

Georgie said her role as a coordinator of the mentoring program is one she particularly enjoys.

“It provides an opportunity to be proactive about the support we provide. It is also great to have the opportunity to provide education to our future alumni on autism and neurodivergence with the hope we are improving knowledge and inclusivity within the Allied Health and Education communities,” she explained.

Meanwhile, Katy said she enjoys getting to know each student and working with them as individuals to find the right adjustments to help them access higher education.

“I genuinely believe this program transforms the university experience for many autistic students and, in doing so assists in enabling them to progress in reaching their goals, both big and small. I also see a lot of value in the experience gained by our mentors, who we hope will approach their future careers as clinicians and teachers with a better understanding of Autism when working with clients and students. Mentors are also potential future colleagues and employers, who we hope will create more inclusive workplaces in the future.”

Prior to the development of the program, the university had been offering case management to autistic students who benefitted from this type of support, the pair explained.

“Demand very quickly overtook capacity and students were unable to meet for case management regularly enough to provide the level of support needed,” they said.

They were in turn influenced by another program at Curtin University.

“With dramatically increasing numbers of autistic students registering with AccessAbility, we were looking to find a more sustainable way to provide the support needed and became aware of the Curtin Specialist Mentoring Program. The resources made available by Curtin University allowed us to adapt them to our environment and roll out this program much more quickly than we would have been able to otherwise,” they said.

They now consider the mentoring program to be “a reasonable and necessary adjustment for autistic students”.

Finding and replicating success

The program has “grown significantly” over its seven-year history, and last year received a Staff Excellence Award from the University.

“It was great to receive recognition for the program particularly as this was the first year that Accessibility became a category for this award ceremony,” Katy and Georgie said, adding that they are driven by “a strong sense of social justice and a genuine belief in both the individual rights of people with disability and the value and the benefits of their inclusion for our institution and society as a whole.”

The program is flexible and is constantly being tweaked based on feedback from mentors and mentees, and to adapt to changing learning environments.

Katy and Georgie said their best ideas often come from the people involved in the program, so they provide plenty of opportunities for feedback. They feel that although coordinating the program in addition to their usual work as Accessibility Advisors can be challenging, it is worth it, and they would be happy to speak with other higher education institutions about how to replicate the University of Newcastle’s success.

“An important thing to remember is that there will never be a perfect time to implement a program like this. We are all extremely busy in this sector, and you will also never have it perfect before rolling it out. It is really difficult sometimes to prioritise something new when your workload is already overwhelming, but it can be so worthwhile to just jump in and decide to make it work. Doing something so proactive can be very energising!” they said.

“Playing a small role in creating positive change at either an individual or broader level can be incredibly satisfying.”

Written by: Danielle Kutchel

April 2024