Peer Mentoring to Prepare High School Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder for College

  • Ashleigh HillierEmail author
  • Joseph Ryan
  • Shawn M. Donnelly
  • Abigail Buckingham



Preparing high school students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) for college life is key to a successful transition. This exploratory study evaluated the effectiveness of a college preparation mentoring program in improving students’ understanding and preparedness for college, motivation to attend college, and confidence.


Participants (n = 47) met weekly with a university student who served as a peer mentor. The 6-week curriculum covered topics including application process, campus supports, time management, and socializing. The program was evaluated using a mixed-methods approach including a customized questionnaire and parent interviews.


Quantitative responses on the pre-post questionnaire indicated participants improved their understanding of what to expect at college, their knowledge of how things work, accessing support services, and lecture styles. Participants continued to report feeling worried about attending college. Qualitative analysis of open-ended questions and interviews with parents supported positive outcomes for participants. Social validity was also indicated.


Peer mentoring may be an effective strategy for improving understanding, preparedness, and motivation regarding transitioning to college for those with ASD.


Autism spectrum disorder Peer mentoring Secondary education 


Author Contributions

AH conceived of, designed and executed the study, conducted the data analyses, and collaborated in writing the paper. JR helped coordinate the program, collect data, and collaborated in writing the paper. SD helped coordinate the program and collect data. AB collaborated in writing and editing the manuscript.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethics Statement

Ethics approval was provided by the Institutional Review Board of University of Massachusetts Lowell. Participants aged 18 years or older provided written informed consent and those under 18 years provided their assent to participate.


  1. Adreon, D., & Durocher, J. S. (2007). Evaluating the college transition needs of individuals with high-functioning autism spectrum disorders. Intervention in School & Clinic, 42(5), 271–279. Scholar
  2. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington: Author.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Anderson, C., & Butt, C. (2017). Young adults on the autism spectrum at college: successes and stumbling blocks. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 47(10), 3029–3039. Scholar
  4. Ashbaugh, K., Koegel, R. L., & Koegel, L. K. (2017). Increasing social integration for college students with autism spectrum disorder. Behavioral Development Bulletin, 22(1), 183–196. Scholar
  5. Burgstahler, S., & Cronheim, D. (2001). Supporting peer–peer and mentor–protégé relationships on the Internet. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 34(1), 59–74.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Cai, R., & Richdale, A. (2016). Educational experiences and needs of higher education students with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Autism & Developmental Disorders, 46(1), 31–41. Scholar
  7. Cascia, J., & Barr, J. J. (2017). Associations among vocabulary, executive function skills and empathy in individuals with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Applied Research in Intellectual Disabilities, 30(4), 627–637. Scholar
  8. Cheak-Zamora, N. C., Teti, M., & First, J. (2015). ‘Transitions are scary for our kids, and they’re scary for us’: family member and youth perspectives on the challenges of transitioning to adulthood with autism. Journal of Applied Research in Intellectual Disabilities, 28(6), 548–560. Scholar
  9. Dallas, B. K., Ramisch, J. L., & McGowan, B. (2015). Students with autism spectrum disorder and the role of family in postsecondary settings: a systematic review of the literature. Journal of Postsecondary Education & Disability, 28(2), 135–147.Google Scholar
  10. Drake, S. (2014). College experience of academically successful students with autism. Journal of Autism, 1(5), 1–4. Scholar
  11. Elias, R., & White, S.W. (2017). Development of the transition readiness scale. Presented at Association of Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies, San Diego, CA, 2017Google Scholar
  12. English, L. (2018). Supporting the transition of autistic students into university life: reflections on a specialist peer mentoring scheme. Good Autism Practice (GAP), 19(1), 63–67.Google Scholar
  13. Filmer, D. (2008). Disability, poverty, and schooling in developing countries: Results from 14 household surveys. The World Bank Economic Review, 22, 141–163. Scholar
  14. Gelbar, N., Smith, I., & Reichow, B. (2014). Systematic review of articles describing experience and supports of individuals with autism enrolled in college and university programs. Journal of Autism & Developmental Disorders, 44(10), 2593–2601. Scholar
  15. Gillespie-Lynch, K., Bublitz, D., Donachie, A., Wong, V., Brooks, P. J., & D’Onofrio, J. (2017). “For a long time our voices have been hushed”: using student perspectives to develop supports for neurodiverse college students. Frontiers in psychology, 8, 544.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Gjevik, E., Sandstad, B., Andreassen, O. A., Myhre, A. M., & Sponheim, E. (2015). Exploring the agreement between questionnaire information and DSM-IV diagnoses of comorbid psychopathology in children with autism spectrum disorders. Autism, 19(4), 433–442.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Hamilton, J., Stevens, G., & Girdler, S. (2016). Becoming a mentor: The impact of training and the experience of mentoring university students on the autism spectrum. PloS one, 11(4), e0153204.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Hewitt, L. E. (2011). Perspectives on support needs of individuals with autism spectrum disorders: transition to college. Topics in Language Disorders, 31(3), 273–285. Scholar
  19. Hillier, A., Goldstein, J., Tornatore, L., Byrne, E., Diaz, A., Johnson, H.M., Ratliff, S., Silva, K., & Donnelly, S.M. (in press). Outcomes of a peer mentoring program for university students with disabilities. Mentoring and Tutoring: Partnership in Learning. Google Scholar
  20. Hillier, A., Goldstein, J., Tornatore, L., Byrne, E., Ryan, J., & Johnson, H. (2018). Mentoring college students with disabilities: experiences of the mentors. International Journal of Mentoring and Coaching in Education, 7(3), 202–218. Scholar
  21. Hitchings, W. E., Retish, P., & Horvath, M. (2005). Academic preparation of adolescents with disabilities for postsecondary education. Career Development for Exceptional Individuals, 28(1), 26–35.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Hollocks, M. J., Lerh, J. W., Magiati, I., Meiser-Stedman, R., & Brugha, T. S. (2019). Anxiety and depression in adults with autism spectrum disorder: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Psychological medicine, 49(4), 559–572.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Hotez, E., Shane-Simpson, C., Obeid, R., DeNigris, D., Siller, M., Costikas, C., Pickens, J., Massa, A., Giannola, A., D’Onofrio, J., & Gillespie-Lynch, K. (2018). Designing a summer transition program for incoming and current college students on the autism spectrum: a participatory approach. Frontiers in Psychology, 9(46), 1–16. Scholar
  24. den Houting, J., Adams, D., Roberts, J., & Keen, D. (2018). Exploring anxiety symptomatology in school-aged autistic children using an autism-specific assessment. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 50, 73–82.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Hsieh, H., & Shannon, S. E. (2005). Three approaches to qualitative content analysis. Qualitative Health Research, 15(9), 1277–1288.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Kim-Rupnow, W. S., & Burgstahler, S. (2004). Perceptions of students with disabilities regarding the value of technology-based support activities on postsecondary education and employment. Journal of Special Education Technology, 19(2), 43–56.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Landis, J. R., & Koch, G. G. (1977). The measurement of observer agreement for categorical data. Biometrics, 33, 159–174.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Lei, J., Calley, S., Brosnan, M., Ashwin, C., & Russell, A. (2018). Evaluation of a transition to university programme for students with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 1-15.Google Scholar
  29. Lightner, K. L., Kipps-Vaughan, D., Schulte, T., & Trice, A. D. (2012). Reasons university students with a learning disability wait to seek disability services. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 25(2), 145–159.Google Scholar
  30. Lindsay, S., Hartman, R., & Fellin, L. M. (2016). A systematic review of mentorship programs to facilitate transition to post-secondary education and employment for youth and young adults with disabilities. Disability and Rehabilitation, 38(14), 1329–1349.Google Scholar
  31. Mazefsky, C. A., Kao, J., & Oswald, D. P. (2011). Preliminary evidence suggesting caution in the use of psychiatric self-report measures with adolescents with high-functioning autism spectrum disorders. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 5(1), 164–174.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Mitchell, W., & Beresford, B. (2014). Young people with high-functioning autism and Asperger’s syndrome planning for and anticipating the move to college: what supports a positive transition? British Journal of Special Education, 41(2), 151–171. Scholar
  33. Morgan, D. L. (1993). Qualitative content analysis: a guide to paths not taken. Qualitative Health Research, 3, 112–121.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Morrison, J. Q., Sansosti, F. J., & Hadley, W. M. (2009). Parent perceptions of the anticipated needs and expectations for support for their college-bound students with Asperger’s Syndrome. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 22(2), 78–87.Google Scholar
  35. Patrick, S., & Wessel, R. D. (2013). Faculty mentorship and transition experiences of students with disabilities. Journal of Postsecondary Education & Disability, 26(2), 105–118.Google Scholar
  36. Peña, E. V., & Kocur, J. (2013). Parents’ experiences in the transition of students with autism spectrum disorders to community college. Journal of Applied Research in the Community College, 20(2), 29–36.Google Scholar
  37. Pinder-Amaker, S. (2014). Identifying the unmet needs of college students on the autism spectrum. Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 22(2), 125–137. Scholar
  38. Roberts, K. D. (2010). Topic areas to consider when planning transition from high school to postsecondary education for students with autism spectrum disorders. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 25(3), 158–162. Scholar
  39. Roberts, N., & Birmingham, E. (2017). Mentoring university students with ASD: a mentee-centered approach. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 47(4), 1038–1050. Scholar
  40. Robertson, A. E., Stanfield, A. C., Watt, J., Barry, F., Day, M., Cormack, M., & Melville, C. (2018). The experience and impact of anxiety in autistic adults: a thematic analysis. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 46, 8–18.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Shattuck, P. T., Narendorf, S. C., Cooper, B., Sterzing, P. R., Wagner, M., & Taylor, J. L. (2012). Postsecondary education and employment among youth with an autism spectrum disorder. Pediatrics, 129(6), 1042–1049. Scholar
  42. Siew, C. T., Mazzucchelli, T. G., Rooney, R., & Girdler, S. (2017). A specialist peer mentoring program for university students on the autism spectrum: a pilot study. PloS one, 12(7), e0180854.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Taylor, J. L., & Mailick, M. R. (2014). A longitudinal examination of 10-year change in vocational and educational activities for adults with autism spectrum disorders. Developmental Psychology, 50(3), 699–708. Scholar
  44. Thoma, C. A. (2013). Postsecondary education for students with intellectual disability (ID): complex layers. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 26(4), 285302.Google Scholar
  45. Van Hees, V., Moyson, T., & Roeyers, H. (2015). Higher education experiences of students with autism spectrum disorder: challenges, benefits and support needs. Journal of Autism & Developmental Disorders., 45(6), 1673–1688. Scholar
  46. Wei, J., Yu, J. W., Shattuck, P., McCracken, M., & Blackorby, J. (2013). Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) participation among college students with an autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 43, 1539–1546.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Weiss, J. A., Tint, A., Paquette-Smith, M., & Lunsky, Y. (2016). Perceived self-efficacy in parents of adolescents and adults with autism spectrum disorder. Autism: The International Journal of Research & Practice, 20(4), 425–434. Scholar
  48. White, S. W., Elias, R., Capriola-Hall, N. N., Smith, I. C., Conner, C. M., Asselin, S. B., Howlin, P., Getzel, E. E., & Mazefsky, C. A. (2017). Development of a college transition and support program for students with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 47(10), 3072–3078.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. World Health Organization (2011). World report on disability. Retrieved from
  50. Yeargin-Allsopp, M., Rice, C., Karapurkar, T., Doemberg, N., Boyle, C., & Murphy, C. (2003). Prevalence of autism in a US metropolitan area. Journal of the American Medical Association, 289(1), 4955.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of Massachusetts LowellLowellUSA

Personalised recommendations