Providing practical & emotional supports to Trinity College Dublin students with Asperger Syndrome

by Rita Honan, Ph.D., Psychology Department, Senior Lecturer, Neurodevelopmental Disabilities

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Over the past 3 years, research has been conducted to investigate the prevalence of Asperger Syndrome (AS) in the undergraduate and postgraduate student population at Trinity College, the knowledge base of this condition amongst students, and the related support services available within college. It was found that there is a fair understanding of AS, a reasonably wide range of potential supports that could be made available, but that these students are not presenting themselves and we have great difficulty finding them. The latter two points, are of course, characteristics of the condition itself- The literature and personal knowledge of persons with AS, suggest that these students do have quite a difficult time at this juncture of their lives when they have often left their supportive homes and smaller secondary schools, and are also becoming more interested in being involved with peers and romantic or physical relationships. University presents them with significant challenges being largely unstructured, highly dependent on good social communication skills both in large group classes and without, being well organised, and open to abstract, controversial thinking and ideas. For those with AS, this combination of stressors can lead to depression and an increase in an already base level of anxiety. We thus have concerns for their social welfare, emotional well being, and academic performance. For these reasons, a project has been initiated to further investigate how we might reach out to identify these students, to delineate their needs in college, and to begin to provide some level of dedicated support.

This academic year a steering committee was formed which includes: student representatives, Student Disability Service (SDS), Student Counselling Service (SCS), Student Health Service, Counselling Psychology Course, and the Henry Marsh Chair of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. An email was sent to all students with an article on AS written by one of our own postgraduates with this condition. Students either self-referred or are referred by other students or staff and seen by this author for a diagnostic assessment interview. The SDS “Evidence of Disability Form” is completed, which includes a statement of how this particular student is affected by the condition, and the initial supports that are needed in college. The SDS then conduct their needs assessment interview and initiate selected supports. The student is also referred to our AS Project facilitator, an MSc in Counselling Psychology student. She conducts an initial interview then administers a quality of life questionnaire and adaptive behaviour scale assessment. Along with the student, an individual support plan is developed, a timeline agreed, and supports initiated.

One component is the assignment of 2-3 self-selected SCS trained peers from the college Peer Support Network each of whom meets with their peer with AS weekly.

This alone has made a substantial difference in reducing the isolation and improving the social skills of some of the students on the project. The students might also be provided with direct and indirect support to access entitlements, negotiate assignments and exam accommodations, complete their written dissertation, assist their tutors in better meeting their educational needs, etc.

We have just started and only have a handful of students currently linked with the AS Project. We hope to become more proficient in identifying these students over time, develop a system whereby we will be notified ahead by 2ndary schools to assist with the college application and transition into college process, work with the Career Service in college, and also develop successful “Exit” transition plans to increase the likelihood of both gaining and maintaining meaningful employment for graduates. A further aim is to educate lecturers and administrators college-wide about this condition. Any models developed that are meeting the objectives of the project will be shared with other third level institutions in Ireland. The ultimate goal is for students with AS to have a successful social, emotional and academic University experience.