|Community-Based Mentoring Program for Autistic Children Improves Experience for Psychology Students
April 20, 2010
by Emily Matras '12
|(l-r) Hannah Lawrence '12, Alexa Burke '12, teacher Carole Martin and Molly Crenshaw '13.
This semester, three Davidson psychology students have been getting hands-on experience working with children with autism through a pilot program run by the Autism Foundation of the Carolinas (AFC).
While Davidson students have worked with children with autism in the past, the new partnership with AFC's inaugural University Autism Outreach Program enables a richer experience. The program pairs local college students with affected Charlotte-area families, providing student volunteers with training and the opportunity to build a sustainable relationship with a particular child.
In addition, the partnership program is one component of a psychology practicum at Davidson supervised by Adjunct Assistant Professor of Psychology Carole Martin. The three Davidson students meet with Martin regularly to talk about their experiences, and Martin helps put them in context. The meetings are important, she said, because "autism is not one thing, it's a whole spectrum of conditions. Just because you spend a lot of time with one child with autism doesn't mean you know autism."
The program was shaped through a meeting of AFC officials and professors from Davidson, Queens University, and UNC Charlotte. The professors brainstormed how the program could benefit participating students, while AFC representatives expressed the interests of partnership families. The collaborative effort proved invaluable.
"Whenever we get together with faculty from other universities, we learn how colleagues are coming up with creative solutions to the same problems we face," said Davidson Professor of Psychology Kristi Multhaup. "During the think-tanks, we asked ourselves, ‘How can the higher education community help?' Working collaboratively to answer this question got us away from thinking about things in only one way."
Charlotte resident Isabel Owen co-founded the AFC three years ago to provide programs and services that improve the "here and now" quality of life for families affected by autism. She has served as a go-between for students and families involved in the program, and has been very pleased with the Davidson student participants. "It's been my observation that Davidson students are self-motivated, self-directed, extremely compassionate, and seem to find 8 to 10 hours a week to devote to this program," Owen said. "These students have full course loads, and some are even athletes. I personally can't figure out how they make it work, but they do."
Children with autism face challenges in the areas of social interaction and communication, so college student volunteers often use behavioral, occupational, and speech therapies in myriad creative ways.
"In a typical session at my buddy Ana's house, I pretty much just hang out," said Alexa Burke '12. "We'll read books, swing or take a walk outside, do a craft or practice the piano. Her parents wanted me to help her work on talking more and having conversations, which is great because I get to ask her questions, find out what interests her and get to know more about her."
Working with the children does present challenges. Maddrey Professor of Psychology Ruth Ault said volunteers must be extremely patient with their young partners. "The rate of progress is just so different, and there's an absolute necessity for consistency," Ault said. "If you're inconsistent the children get confused."
Molly Crenshaw '13, who works with 10-year-old Zach, has encountered these challenges. "It's really tough to know how hard to push him," she said. "I know he's a smart boy, but sometimes things are a lot more difficult for him than I would imagine. When we were working on Valentine's Day cards, it was tough for him to understand that his name always went under the ‘from' spot, but someone else's name always went under the ‘to' spot. I want to push him, but I also don't want him to get frustrated."
The pilot program has been so successful that it will become a permanent feature of the AFC's family support services. "We will work on assessing and enhancing the program this summer, and we'll roll it back out again in the fall," said AFC founder Owen. This is good news for Davidson students, whose work through the AFC has provided invaluable training they might not have received by pursuing a partnership with an area family on their own.
"Training is definitely a big plus for students working through the foundation," said Ault. "In the past, students would contact individual families. Their lives were often so chaotic that the students might not get training before starting work, or might be unsupervised. Now, the students go through the training with each other under supervision, and are able to learn from each other."
While the cognitive and behavioral therapies for the children are vital to developing their life skills, that's not what's most important, said Owen. "Most of all, these kids get a buddy. That relationship means more to the parents than any other therapy."
The buddy benefit has definitely not been one-sided. "I didn't know whether or not I was interested in abnormal psychology, but working with Zach has been a blast," said Crenshaw. "I think I'm developing a passion for this."
Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,800 students located 20 minutes north of Charlotte in Davidson, N.C. Since its establishment in 1837 by Presbyterians, the college has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is consistently regarded as one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country. Through The Davidson Trust, the college became the first liberal arts institution in the nation to replace loans with grants in all financial aid packages, giving all students the opportunity to graduate debt-free. Davidson competes in NCAA athletics at the Division I level, and a longstanding Honor Code is central to student life at the college.