As practitioners, we are always looking for ways to strengthen the quality of our program to ensure that mentoring does not just feel good, or look good, but is producing real outcomes for youth. As we work to utilize quality mentoring to strengthen our communities, we must ensure that our services are as accessible as possible to meet the complex needs of all youth. In Massachusetts, we are lucky to have a leader in the national movement for accessibility and inclusiveness of mentoring. Partners for Youth with Disabilities (PYD) has developed and sustained innovative programs that promote inclusive practices, self-esteem, creativity, healthy lifestyles, and career development for young adults ages 6 to 24 with all types of disabilities. These efforts include running the Mentor Match program for the last 28 years to ensure that mentoring services reach all communities and all youth in need.
With a foundation of accessibility and inclusiveness, the Mentor Match program continues to investigate ways to expand their support and strengthen their services to reach all populations. Over the past few years, the program has observed an increase in the number of referrals for youth with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs). Whether the increased volume of this population is due to a rise of prevalence of youth with ASDs, widening diagnostic criteria, or growth in popularity of mentoring, it is clear youth with ASDs are turning to mentoring for support. This trend inspired PYD to investigate the impact mentoring has on the youth with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Youth with ASDs often face significant and unique challenges. These challenges include difficulties with social interactions and communication often times leading to feelings of isolation. While a good deal of research attention is focused on addressing the language, sensory, and behavioral challenges of ASD, the social difficulties that these youth experience can be the most detrimental of all to their quality of life (Kroeger, Schultz, & Newsom, 2006). Although there is substantive research documenting the plethora of benefits for “at risk youth,” disability is often overlooked by organizations as a risk factor that warrants the need for mentoring (Daughtry, Gibson, & Abels 2009). However, given that studies have shown mentoring to be effective at promoting positive youth development and improving social and behavioral outcomes, PYD was interested in testing the hypothesis that mentoring could be particularly beneficial for improving the lives of youth with ASDs.
Several years ago, PYD received funds from the Deborah Monroe Noonan Memorial Research Fund to conduct a pilot study, in collaboration with Tufts Medical Center, titled Partners Exploring Education and Recreation (PEER). This program included nine college students serving as mentors for teenagers with Asperger Syndrome and High Functioning Autism over a period of six months. Nine youth ages 14-18, met with their mentor once a week for two hours at a local Boys & Girls Club (BGC). Pre and post intervention measures were taken to evaluate their self-esteem, social anxiety and quality of life. The analysis of measures at the end of the program revealed extremely positive results and showed that the presence of the caring adult mentor made a strong impact. After just six months of mentoring, youth registered improvements on the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale, Pediatrics Quality of Life Questionnaire, and Social Worries Questionnaire. The three evaluation tools were chosen to look at how mentoring could help with self-esteem, overall quality of life, and the social comfort levels of youth. Though this sample is small and not statistically significant, the positive trend towards improvement suggests the benefits of carrying out a larger study to assess the impact. Further, even after the program had formally ended, eight out of nine mentees chose to stay involved with mentoring, highlighting participants’ enthusiasm for their experience. The reported connectedness mentees experienced with their mentor supports the evidence that often times, for individuals with ASDs, socialization is not inhibited by a lack of desire for social relationships but rather a need for extra support around developing them (Bauminger, 2003). Mentoring is a key strategy in helping young people learn how to develop healthy and nurturing relationships. Youth with ASDs are no different in needing that resource.
While the support, guidance, and care of a mentor is often the resource many youth with ASDs need to help them thrive, programs may be hesitant to enroll this population due to preconceptions about their interest and ability to form relationships. The success of this pilot program can be attributed to many of the same basic principles that might apply to any mentoring program: customizing matches based on mutual interests, addressing misunderstandings and unmet expectations, seeing each young person as an individual rather than a statistic, and making sure matches have all the knowledge, resources, and support they need to thrive. In addition to these best practices, PEER mentors were trained on the particularities of communicating with this population, including an overview of the “Hidden Curriculum.” The Hidden Curriculum refers to social information that we are all expected to know in order to function in society, but is rarely explicitly taught. It includes (but is not limited to) how aspects of interaction such as tone of voice, non-verbal communication, and conversational rules, inform social messages. When one is missing these inexplicit yet vital cues, it can feel like speaking another language, even if the verbal language is clear. For youth with ASDs, aspects of the Hidden Curriculum frequently need to be made explicit and are often at the root of many misunderstandings.
This pilot helped to illustrate the power of inclusive mentoring in strengthening and enriching communities. Although the data are limited, it provides a glimpse into how powerful mentoring can be for all youth, regardless of challenges they might have in forming relationships. The work that Partners for Youth with Disabilities did to ensure that their services were accessible for youth with ASDs is important and critical to making mentoring accessible. Programs should assess their ability to serve all youth regardless of their complex needs and then increase their knowledge about these needs and create resources, collaborations and referral resources to ensure their services are as accessible as they can be. The lessons learned from this pilot go well beyond the targeted population of youth with ASDs but should create awareness about program practices and services that are as accessible and tailored as possible.