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Casting a support net

A new group hopes to help students with Autism Spectrum Disorder take on the challenges of university

- January 15, 2014

Three of the ASD group's architects (l-r): Jeff MacLeod, Shannon Johnson and Anne Forrestall. (Natalie Mike photo)
Three of the ASD group's architects (l-r): Jeff MacLeod, Shannon Johnson and Anne Forrestall. (Natalie Mike photo)

Life as a university student can be stressful at the best of times. But for those who have been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or Asperger’s Syndrome, the academic and social pressures can be debilitating.

“The strengths and challenges of students with ASD are unique for each individual, but the common challenge is social difficulties which can impede academic success,” says Shannon Johnson, an associate professor in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience. “Some students with ASD have considerable difficulty working in groups or participating in class. Group work requires complex social interactions with people you’ve never interacted with before. So students who struggle in those situations may choose not to participate or may even stop attending class due to anxiety.”

Current studies indicate the prevalence of ASD in Canada is somewhere between 1 in 50 and 1 in 100. It’s one of the most common neurodevelopmental disorders affecting children—with boys being four times more likely to be affected by girls.

Wanting to provide a support network at Dalhousie—and thanks to partial funding from anonymous donors—Dr. Johnson and Anne Forrestall, assistant vice-president of Student Academic Success Services, initiated weekly group meetings for Dal, King’s and NSCAD students diagnosed with ASD or Asperger’s. Starting in early February, Dr. Johnson, along with Melissa McGonnell, an assistant professor at Mount Saint Vincent University and psychologist at Dal Counselling Services, and Jeff MacLeod, a clinical psychology PhD student, will facilitate the 90-minute sessions; there will also be some social outings for the group.

“Each meeting will focus on a particular topic, such as coping with stress, developing self-advocacy skills, or dating,” says Dr. Johnson. “We will use various formats, such as videos, discussion and role plays. We hope the group will provide students with some new knowledge and skills to help them successfully navigate university life.”

Advocating for one's self

The three major topics that will be covered in the group are self-advocacy, coping with anxiety and depression, and social interactions and relationships. But Dr. Johnson says the format and focus of each session will be tailored to the needs and goals of the individual students taking part.

“For example, if several group members have difficulty with anxiety (which is quite common for people with ASD), we will likely focus several sessions on anxiety and emphasize the development of skills for coping with it throughout the term,” she says.

That anxiety can rear its head in the classroom, but Dr. Johnson says that because social interactions are typically difficult for people with ASD, it can become an obstacle outside of academics as well.

“There are many types of interactions that take place in a university setting and poor social skills can impede progress, even when academic skills are strong,” she says. “Students with ASD typically struggle with meeting new people, and forming and maintaining friendships. Finding like-minded people is often challenging, and this can lead to feeling isolated and depressed. For those who are anxious about social interactions, it may be too overwhelming to attend a club meeting, talk to someone new in class, or speak to a professor about challenges in the classroom.”

Dr. Johnson is hoping the group will provide a venue for students with ASD or Asperger’s to connect with each other and discover the social and academic resources that are available to them at Dal. She says that self-advocacy can often be challenging for them, so they may find it difficult to communicate with instructors or register for workshops or other services that can help them in and out of the classroom. She hopes the group will help students develop some fundamental self-advocacy skills, which has been a key focus of similar groups at universities in the U.S. and U.K.

“Ultimately, we want students with ASD to have a positive university experience,” she says. “Providing supports along the way is one way that we can help make this happen.”

Interested students can learn more about or register for the group through Counselling Services at 494-2081 or recepcps@dal.ca.


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