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Autism Mentors

Peer mentor program helps students on the spectrum navigate the rigors of higher education

Published July 13, 2015
Story by Pam Roe

Lindsey Miller portrait

Lindsey Miller, a sophomore journalism major from Newtown, Pennsylvania, enrolled in Psychology 4001 and mentored a peer with autism during Spring 2015 semester.

Everyday interactions with people are extremely difficult for those on the autism spectrum. As a social and emotional disorder, it makes relationships difficult to attain and maintain. Individuals diagnosed with autism may appear rude, impatient, odd or detached. But these appearances are not intentional.

Students with autism “often have trouble making eye contact, responding to a text or dealing with someone not responding to their text or knowing how to start or end a conversation with a classmate or professor,” says Colton Miller, PhD, a University of Missouri Student Health Center psychologist.

Miller developed a peer mentor program to serve as an additional resource for students on the autism spectrum. Launched at Mizzou in Spring 2015, the program is already making a difference.

Educational Experience

Because autism is not an outward disability, it’s tough for others to understand that students with autism spend years learning what society thinks is appropriate. They intentionally try not to offend others or act in ways that make them stand out in social situations.

“This is one of the reasons why my class is educating student mentors about autism and how to help their peers on the spectrum navigate social and academic situations,” Colton Miller says.

Psychology 4001 is a two-credit-hour, semester-long course that fulfills a general elective credit for the mentors as they learn behavioral skills interventions to help their mentees.

“Traditional talk therapy may not work as well for individuals on the spectrum,” Colton Miller says, “but combine that with behavioral skills and peer interaction and you get many more successes.”

Peer Support

Student mentor Lindsey Miller (no relationship to Colton Miller) realizes she’s lucky that certain things come easily to her in social situations and says being in a mentor role has made her more humble.

“I had a lot of knowledge about autism before coming to Mizzou,” she says. “But now, I’m around the same age as my mentee. I’ve learned to place myself in his shoes so I can meet his needs, but push him out of his comfort zone when needed. What is great is that this class has taught me how to balance being a peer, develop and use leadership skills and have mutual respect that comes with empathy.”

Autism mentors aren’t therapists, and Colton Miller doesn’t want the mentees to become dependent on their mentors as their main social contacts. So he also uses his class to educate student mentors about the line that needs to be drawn in this type of relationship.

“Not only do these mentees have autism, they often have symptoms of other co-occurring diagnoses,” says the behavioral health specialist. “That’s where the mentors come in. They help their peers make sense of a subjective situation.”

Not Just for Psychology Majors

The mentors meet an hour per week both with Colton Miller and their mentees. Two mentors are assigned to each mentee, which encourages creativity and collaboration, provides support and helps ensure safety of all students.

Mentors are mostly undergraduates and mostly psychology majors, but the opportunity is open to all majors. This is where Lindsey Miller, a sophomore documentary journalism major from Newtown, Pennsylvania, fits in.

“Being a part of an autism mentor program in high school made me want to become a journalist,” she says. “Autistic individuals, and sometimes their families, can’t tell their own stories — and someone needs to.”

Individualized Interaction

Throughout his time teaching this course both at Mizzou and in Idaho, Colton Miller has observed that the student mentors are often better at identifying those with high-functioning autism than many professionals.

Although the course was offered for the first time at Mizzou in Spring 2015, most of the mentees want to continue with the program in the fall. He believes this suggests a positive experience on the mentee side.

“The education, training and peer-to-peer interaction gives the mentors a greater insight into autism,” Colton Miller says. “The mentees are getting the individualized interaction they need to succeed in the college setting. It’s a win-win for everyone involved.”

Individuals interested in the program may email Colton Miller at millercolt@health.missouri.edu.

group photo of 2015 autism mentors

Spring 2015 autism mentors are, from left, front row: Alex Ashton, Lindsey Miller, Shane Stinson, Danielle Insall, Zoe Crowe-Barnes, Abigail Stewart, Lauren Bay. Back row: Kayla Broeker, Emily Smallwood, Madalyn Hoke, Jason Clark, Brianna Koenig, Loren Howard, Madelaine Smith, Mallory Stevens.

Published by the Division of Student Affairs, 211 Jesse Hall, Columbia, MO 65211 | Phone: 573-882-6776 | Fax: 573-882-0158 | E-mail: StudentAffairs@missouri.edu

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Last updated: Aug. 15, 2017