Intersection - Autism Mentor Program at MU

Mar 23, 2016

Credit KBIA

  On this week's Intersection, we are talking about autism spectrum disorder and the Autism Mentor Program at MU. Our guests are UM student Chris Brown and licensed psychologist and creator of the Autism Mentor Program Colton Miller. To learn more, listen to our entire show, or read and listen to portions of our interviews below.

Chris Brown talks about his experience with autism.

Colton Miller explains autism spectrum disorder.

Miller talks about the resources available to people living with autism spectrum disorder, and how continuing care can be a challenge as people move from childhood into adulthood. 

A selected transcription of our interview with Colton Miller:

What is autism and why do we talk about it being a spectrum?

 Autism is a neurological disorder, and essentially, I think the best way to describe it is individuals who are on the spectrum, their brains are essentially wired differently than a typical brain. And the main deficits or areas of struggle they have are with social communication. We call it a spectrum because it is such a wide variety of experiences that people have who have autism. We have everyone. We have individuals who are very low functioning, who are even non­verbal or not able to communicate verbally, all the way to individuals who are very verbal and can express themselves very well. But the main deficits we see are with communication problems and often patterns of rigidity and behavior. And so, that is kind of the common thread throughout the spectrum, but personality wise it is as vast as the rainbow. I always say that if you have met one person on the spectrum, you have still only met one person on the spectrum. There is really very few things that you can find in common among all of them except the communication difficulties.

And the people that you work with are in college and I have heard a bit about a fall off in services for many people on the spectrum when they leave high school, when they leave their school district, and that it can be sort of a difficult world after that. What do you see with the people you began working with, and what services are you providing to these college students?

  I think we are doing a great job overall, and I say we're- I mean even nationally. But particularly in Columbia, Missouri, there are, I would say, some great and wonderful resources for children who are on the autism spectrum. Now we are starting to recognize, or as I like to say, the children grow up and it’s kind of like, "Then what?" And social norms would indicate that you go to college, or trade school, or join the armed forces, you know, you kind of move on to the next step. And fortunately many people on the spectrum are able to do that. But when they arrive, for example here at the University of Missouri, it’s not as structured as a high school environment. They don't have, for example, a special education teacher looking after them or their own individualized teacher or tutors. Their parents aren't always as involved. They are sent to this higher education institution where they have to make their own decisions, take care of themselves and there's not a lot of structured opportunities where people are just going to automatically be their friends, like athletics and sports in high school, for example. And so they have to figure out how to do that on their own and that presents them in a new world of difficulty because there is a lot of ambiguity. A lot of things aren't as structured or forced and so that can create a lot of fear and anxiety for them. When they have already struggled making friends and you put them in this environment it makes it equally or doubly difficult. Then you add on top of that this developmental time in anybody's life is a time to reach out, make new friends, establish healthy relationships, get to know yourself better and for an individual who is on the spectrum to watch all their roommates and friends be able to do that so naturally and easily, that can be discouraging for them when they are not able to do the same things.  And in terms of support, what are the best ways to sort of empower these people or to ease this transition for them. What do you do with your group?  I didn't start it here, I started it at a previous university and kind of brought it with me and luckily I was able to establish it here. Essentially what I notice as a psychologist is we had an influx of individuals coming in for a variety of mental health reasons and one of those reasons we started noticing was the autism spectrum. And at once I started noticing that it became apparent to me that traditional talk therapy isn't always that helpful. I'm not saying that it can't be, I just don't think its the best choice of treatment for people who are on the spectrum. And so, I started doing my own research, and studying and practice with my own clients, and I realized that social coaching in a very direct communication style and very direct behavioral modification seems to be more effective than traditional talk therapy. Additionally, on top of that I was listening to a podcast, This American Life, and they talked about a young girl who was on the spectrum. They didn't know, they had all these troubles, was hospitalized. Eventually they figured out what was going on and she was having all sorts of behavioral problems and mood problems and disrupting the classroom. Long story short, eventually what happened is she found a friend, somebody her own age who was willing to listen to her and befriend her and be kind to her and who didn't judge her. And her parents, of the daughter who was on the spectrum, said it was like night and day. Her mood changed, her behavior changed, she started mimicking her friend. Everything was just like night and day and it really, really helped her. Based on these things: my own experiences and this stuff and the literature and everything that was going on, I thought, "You know what? A peer mentoring program can be a very effective tool here in a university setting." And so that is how we came up with the autism mentor program. And essentially, I train undergraduate students who aren't on the spectrum but have an interest in working with folks who are on the spectrum on how to be mentors. On how to be non­judgmental, non- interfering, they understand what autism is and they are there to be a social coach, to be a friend, to help them understand how higher academics work. And for those who want to participate, individuals on the spectrum, they are paired up with people- trained mentors- so they can be of assistance to help them navigate higher education. That is interesting because I was going to ask you, you know, if people think that they work with someone who might be on the spectrum or are friends with someone, what are the things that people who aren't on the spectrum can do to help people who are to relate with them, or to have more comfortable social situation? I suppose, what do you coach your students to do?   I think the basic thing is something we can all do better of: be kind. Be kind and be understanding. Everybody has a story and these individuals, individuals on the spectrum, they may come across as, again, they may be abrasive, they might be too direct, they might be really quiet. They may be shy or anxious, they might have weird mannerisms or hand gestures. They may avoid eye contact. Understand that there is a reason for those things and most of the time, overwhelmingly most of the time, they have a great desire to connect and try to be friendly and to get to know you. They may communicate a little bit differently, but that doesn't mean its wrong. Its just different and that is okay. So ultimately, just be a kind individual who is trying to be understanding. I think that is the best advice we can give and that, I think, applies to a lot of things. Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.