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Peer support for students with autism and Asperger

January 7, 2010

A $2.3 million grant will fund a peer support program for Colorado State University students who have autism and Asperger's Syndrome spectrum disorders or have experienced traumatic brain injury. Mentors will give one-on-one guidance and encouragement to the students they partner with.

The OPS project gives students an avenue for learning to navigate academic and social situations with the help of fellow students.

More than 100 Colorado State University students fall somewhere on the spectrum of autism and Asperger’s syndrome or have experienced traumatic brain injuries.

A $2.3 million grant to CSU now gives these students an opportunity to learn to navigate academic and social situations with the help of fellow students.

One-on-one guidance

“This grant will help us develop a program to help students who struggle socially – and as a result, academically - because of their disability. 

"It will provide them with one-on-one guidance and encouragement through a student mentor who will provide them with peer support,” said Catherine Schelly, the principal investigator on the grant and director of the University’s Center for Community Partnerships.

Funding for five years of services

The grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Postsecondary Education was awarded to the University’s Center for Community Partnerships. The project, called Opportunities for Postsecondary Success, is funded through the grant for five years and Schelly plans to establish it as a long-term service.

Tackling challenges that impede academic success

The Opportunities for Postsecondary Success -- called OPS -- project will pair students with disabilities with student peer mentors who will help them navigate nearly any challenge that is holding them back from academic success. Student mentors will spend 30 - 40 hours a semester with students enrolled in the program.

Student mentors often will be CSU graduate students seeking occupational therapy degrees. The program will give them an opportunity to gain experience in their field of study, but student mentors from other majors also may participate, particularly if it is beneficial to pair a student enrolled in the program with a mentor from his or her major or one who lives in the same residence hall. 

Student mentors will spend 30 - 40 hours per a semester with students enrolled in the program.

Academic, career, and life skills

Participating students also will be coached by professional staff in the Center for Community Partnerships. The student mentors and staff will help them with time management, study skills, compensatory strategies, career exploration, effective communication, forming relationships and learning to advocate for themselves in the educational setting.

Trial programs a great success

The Center for Community Partnerships is a direct service and outreach arm of the Occupational Therapy Department. Schelly, who is a faculty member in the department, implemented a program much like the OPS project on a smaller scale for several years through a mentoring course that she taught. The success of that course helped drive the development of the OPS project.

'Many students with these disabilities are lonely'

“The challenges these students face are often not academic, but do impact their ability to be successful -- such as how to live with a roommate in a residence hall, how to communicate effectively with a professor, and how to make friends and get connected.

"Many students with these disabilities are lonely -- on a campus full of people,” Schelly said. “Based on our experiences, once participating students with disabilities receive intensive support and guidance through this program in their early college years, most will ultimately become independent in all aspects of their lives and experience success as a college student.”

OLP mentors will support program participants in such skills as knowing how to live with a roommate, communicating with a professor, making friends, and getting connected.

Mentoring in different arenas

Schelly anticipates that students will use their mentors for learning where and how to study, connecting with campus and community resources, organizing their study spaces and rooms in a way that works for them, meeting other students, participating in college and community activities, and forming friendships.

Mentors may even attend classes with students enrolled in the program to help them through the social and communications processes.

Accessing the program

Front Range Community College students also can participate in the program, as can Poudre School District students who will enroll at Front Range or CSU. Students with disabilities will get connected to the program through CSU’s Resources for Disabled Students and the Division of Student Affairs. Front Range students can access it through the Student Disability Office on their campus.   

“There is no doubt that if we put the right supports in place, these students can be successful,” said Schelly. “In fact, I highly expect that, with the right support systems in place, the majority of participating students will graduate from college and go on to have successful careers.”

Partners, team members


OPS team members at Colorado State include the Center for Community Partnerships professional staff and fieldwork students; Patti Davies, an occupational therapy professor; the Assistive Technology Resource Center; Resources for Disabled Students and the Division of Student Affairs. Bitsy Cohn, at Front Range Community College, the City of Fort Collins Adaptive Recreation Opportunities program, the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, Poudre School District and Foothills Gateway are other community partners.

A key collaborator and professional mentor for the project is Temple Grandin, a professor of Animal Sciences at CSU, who is a highly functioning person with autism known nationally and internationally for her success. 

The Department of Occupational Therapy is in the College of Applied Human Sciences.

Contact: Dell Rae Moellenberg
E-mail: DellRae.Moellenberg@ColoState.Edu
Phone: (970) 491-6009