Although not a cure, Colton Miller, PhD, a University of Missouri Student Health Center psychologist, has developed an additional resource for those on the autism spectrum going through the rigors of higher education.

"We are educating student mentors about autism and how to help their peers on the spectrum navigate social and academic situations," Colton Miller says.

This two-credit-hour, semester-long course fulfills a general elective credit for the mentors as they learn behavioral skills interventions to help their mentees. "Traditional talk therapy may not work as well for individuals on the spectrum," Colton Miller says, "but combine that with behavioral skills and peer interaction and you get many more successes."

Autism Mentor Program Group PictureLindsey Miller, a student mentor, realizes she’s lucky that certain things come easily to her in social situations and says being in a mentor role has made her more humble.

“I had a lot of knowledge about autism before coming to Mizzou,” she says. “But now, I’m around the same age as my mentee. I’ve learned to place myself in his shoes so I can meet his needs, but push him out of his comfort zone when needed. What is great is that this class has taught me how to balance being a peer, develop and use leadership skills and have mutual respect that comes with empathy.”

However, these college students aren’t therapists and they don’t want their mentees to become dependent on them as their main social contacts. So Colton Miller uses his class to educate his mentors about the line that needs to be drawn in this type of relationship.

“Not only do these mentees have autism, they often have symptoms of other co-occurring diagnoses,” says the behavioral health specialist.

Students on the autism spectrum often have trouble making eye contact; responding to a text or dealing with someone not responding to their text; or knowing how to start or end a conversation with a classmate or professor. That’s where the mentors come in. They help their peers make sense of a subjective situation.

The mentors meet an hour per week both with Colton Miller and their mentees. Two mentors are then assigned to a mentee. This pairing of mentors is for a number of reasons: (1) It’s helpful to have more than one mind when working with individuals on the spectrum. Two mentors can be more creative with their interventions. (2) Sometimes working with individuals on the spectrum can be a difficult and challenging. It’s helpful to have a partner who can offer support and collaboration. (3) Lastly, safety for both the mentors and mentees.

Typically mentors are mostly undergraduates and mostly psychology majors, but the opportunity is open to all majors. This is where Lindsey Miller, a documentary journalism student, fits in.

“Being a part of an autism mentor program in high school made me want to become a journalist,” the sophomore says. “Because autistic individuals, and sometimes their families, can’t tell their own stories and someone needs to.”

Throughout his time teaching this course both at Mizzou and in Idaho, Colton Miller has observed that the mentors are better at identifying those with high-functioning autism than many professionals. He believes the education, training and peer-to-peer interaction gives the mentors a greater insight into autistic behavior.

He also believes many universities and colleges are now realizing they have more students on the autism spectrum than they originally thought. The overall positive feedback, academic success for both mentors and mentees combined with the new skills both groups are learning might mean that his program is a definite part of the solution.