A specialised program is helping students with autism-related issues adjust and fit in.
Curtin University is the first university in Australia to develop a specialised mentoring program designed to engage people with autism and related conditions in campus life.
The program, which started last year, helps those who are academically able but may not have some of the social or life skills required for the campus experience.
Theresa Kidd, joint coordinator of the Curtin Specialist Mentoring Program (CSMP), said last year 18 students with autism took part and already 22 had enrolled this year, with the number expected to increase.
The mentors are studying their masters in either psychology or occupational therapy and they meet with their student at least once a week, depending on individual requirements.
“Students with high-functioning autism, or Asperger’s, often have the same intelligence as other people, or higher. One guy coming to our program was dux of his high school,” Ms Kidd said.
“So it’s other things that they usually need support with.”
These other things might be helping them adjust to change or cope with noise and crowds; people with autism can have sensory sensitivities.
Another example could be a student needs help to expand their social horizon or communicate their thoughts to lecturers, peers and campus staff.
“We had one guy here for three years who had never spoken to anybody or made any friends on campus because initiating friendships can be hard for people with autism,” Ms Kidd explained.
“He came into our program last year and we formed a social group that meets once a week. Now he has a group of friends and they are catching up in the holidays and also going to the movies.”
Other students did not know how to structure an email to their lecturer and when they did it might have been perceived as rude, so the mentor has been able to help with this.
“It’s not about doing stuff for these students, it’s about helping them engage in what’s already on offer at the university, and the feedback we’ve had from parents and the students has been incredible.”
Ms Kidd developed the program with her colleague Jasmine McDonald because both women have autistic sons and had seen the excellent results of similar programs at the University of Cambridge in England and York University in Canada.
“The outcome for adults with high-functioning autism in employment, relationships and mental wellbeing is really poor,” Ms Kidd said.
“We have researched this area ourselves and wanted to provide a service to students that will increase three things – their retention at university, their wellbeing and their success in their studies.”
Employment rates are also low for people with autism, she added, because sometimes autistic people interview poorly despite having the talent and intelligence to perform the actual job, so arranging work experience was another aspect of the program.
The hope is it will result in meaningful employment after graduation.