Cygnet Project: Mentoring Scheme for Young People with Autism Spectrum Conditions

Carer and adult with autismProject Area: Mentoring Scheme for Young People with Autism Spectrum Conditions

Lead Researcher: Professor Nicola Martin

Institution: London South Bank University

Status: Completed


This two-year pilot study established a tailored mentoring scheme, designed with input from autistic people and their carers, and evaluated its effectiveness in improving the mental health and wellbeing of young adults aged 16-24 with Asperger syndrome (AS) or high functioning autism (HFA). It aimed to identify whether or not mentoring has potential to be an effective intervention for this group.

Likely impact:

The project has highlighted the benefits of time limited goal orientated mentoring and the lack of a rigorous evidence base underpinning current mentoring practice with adults on the autism spectrum. There is a need to use the findings to stimulate investment in further more in-depth research and development in this area.

Downloads:  What should I expect from mentoring? A guide for mentees | Executive summary of the Cygnet project

Additional Information


The Research Autism Cygnet Mentoring project was a two-year pilot study, aiming to develop, trial and evaluate a mentoring scheme designed with input from autistic people, their families and supporters. Operating from an ‘emancipatory research’ standpoint, user involvement was central to the design of every aspect including outline design of the programme itself, recruitment of staff, mentor training, selection and supervision as well as fixed term paired mentoring and monitoring. Mentoring guidance was informed by Personal Construct Theory (PCT) (Kelly, 1955) and in particular the use of the Salmon Line (Salmon, 2003). 


Each participant received one hour of mentoring per week over a six-month period.  The time frame was chosen following consultation of adults with autism by Research Autism, in which a preference was expressed for time limited, goal orientated mentoring over long-term ‘befriending.’ 

Face to Face and email mentoring arrangements were implemented, based on   participant choice. Mentee preferences, accessed via an expression of interest form/screening tool, informed the matching process as far as possible. Mentors and mentees could contact the researchers throughout the programme about any issues that they felt unable to resolve within their sessions. Additionally, mentors were invited to attend a peer support event around the third month of mentoring.

Key Findings


  • The authentic voice of men and women with autism is an essential component.
  • Two days would be preferable to one.
  • Reliability must be emphasised in training alongside an understanding of boundaries and supervision.
  • The role of the mentor in helping the mentee to set their own goals must be made clear throughout training and supervision.
  • The accredited training that is available is not adequately evidence based and does not cover the components of understanding autism, mentoring and context.
  • The acronym REAL (‘reliable, empathic, anticipatory and logical’) usefully encapsulates the values underpinning mentor training. (Hastwell et al.,2013)
  • An outcome of the project could be to develop such training for CPD accreditation. A PG Cert in Autism Mentoring, accredited by LSBU, has been developed and validated already as a result of the project. Thought to be given to future evaluation using an evidence-supported model.

The need for supervision

  • Supervision was a key area and we found much evidence of poor or unstructured supervision of mentoring in arrangements we identified.
  • Finding a suitable mentor for each mentee was a complicated process and we had to strike a balance between the mentee’s ideal choice and what was possible. Some mentees were hoping for friendships which overstepped the boundaries and this had to be handled with care and clarity.
  • Mentors requested from supervisors, advice as to how best to support the mentee and how to deal with situations that may cross boundaries.
  • Creating a range of ways in which mentors could bounce ideas off one another and provide peer-to-peer support would be a useful future development.
  • On-going development as a mentor was important and the gap in suitable accredited and non-accredited training and CPD was highlighted.
  • Processes for reporting issues of concern were strengthened during the project as these, although covered in training, were less clear than we had realised. The need to set clear boundaries.
  • Issues around advocacy emerged in relation to the role of the mentor in facilitating support. It became clear that giving mentors a very clear steer on signposting needed to be more firmly embedded in training.
  • Training emphasised the need for clear boundaries about what mentoring is and what it is not (e.g. befriending, coaching, and counselling). During the course of the research it became abundantly evident of the need to reinforce this in supervision. 
  • Two, and on one occasion three, layers of supervision emerged in practice. The researchers were the first line of supervision and would seek advice from the Principal Investigator who in one instance needed to clarify a situation with RA’s Research Director. Clearly, supervisors need somewhere to go if they need advice and this should be built into a mentoring scheme.

Matching mentors with mentees

  • The limited age range of available mentors meant that mentees could not necessarily have a mentor in their preferred age range.
  • Lack of male mentors was an issue.
  • One male mentee particularly wanted a young female mentor and concerns were raised as to whether this was because he felt that the mentor would be able to play an additional role of support in relation to understanding females and relationships.
  • Issue arose around communication, understanding, expectations and identity when matching a mentee with a mentor on the autism spectrum. One mentee commented: ‘’Having a mentor on the spectrum has actually made me more insecure because whereas I thought I would be able to draw similarities between myself and the mentor, she seems a lot less far on the spectrum than me.” This example highlights the requirement for closer supervision if both mentor and mentee are on the spectrum.
  • It is important to note that the literature includes many examples of mentoring between people on the spectrum, which exists outside formal arrangements, and operate successfully.
  • The reliability and consistency of mentors emerged as a fundamental concern. Although this was emphasised in training, a minority of mentors were unreliable and would cause the mentee stress by altering arrangements.

Flexibility of mentoring scheme

  • The possibility to change mentors if the matching had not worked from the mentees perspective was built in but did cause mentees feelings of anxiety. In retrospect the ramifications should have been clearer.
  • The specificity of the project required mentees to set goals early and some had difficulty in understanding the concept of ‘life goals’. In a practical mentoring scheme more time could be allocated to making this idea clearer.

Key Learning Points

  • Mentor schemes should not operate without formal systems of vetting, recruitment, training, support and supervision. 
  • Mentor selection needs to interrogate prior qualifications and experience of working with people on the autism spectrum and personal characteristics, such as respect for the autonomy of the mentee.
  • Training needs to include an understanding of the boundaries of mentoring, supervision arrangements and process as well as high-quality respectful autism focussed input.
  • Reliability must be emphasised in training.
  • The quality of the training experience is enhanced when there is significant input from autistic people in its design and delivery.
  • Having male and female autistic trainers was felt by trainees to provide balance.
  • Personal construct theory provided a sound framework in training for emphasising the role of the mentor in facilitating the mentee in setting and working towards their goals (set by mentees and facilitated by mentors when needed).
  • Trainees felt that the face-to-face nature of the training was important and that the high quality material ideally required two days of input.
  • There is a lack of evidence-based mentor training and ongoing supervision, which fulfils the conditions described above.
  • Participants on the spectrum found their mentor experience very helpful in enabling them to progress toward self-identified goals.
  • Mentees felt empowered by the person-centred methods employed on the project and in setting their own goals. 
  • Control of the way in which mentoring sessions were to be conducted was important to mentees who favoured a variety of approaches including face to face and email contact.
  • The matching of mentor and mentee was viewed as an important factor in determining the effectiveness of mentoring.  
  • Boundaries were difficult to hold in situations where mentees were experiencing particular challenges, especially when mentoring was via email. It was necessary to address this during supervision usually by advising mentors to signpost to additional services.
  • Occasional boundary concerns revealed the requirement for supervisors to have an adviser to call upon occasionally.
  • A number of aspects of the mentoring project have been identified for further investigation, including: boundary setting, supervision, flexibility, and the matching of mentees with mentors.
  • A larger scale action research project is required in order to build on the pilot with a view to operationalising a mentor scheme that includes the essential components identified.
  • An evidence based mentoring scheme including training, supervision and CPD is required and the team is well placed to develop this. We have already created training and a validated PG Cert.  The next step is to ensure that the training protocols are approved for professional CPD. 


The project has highlighted the benefits of time limited goal orientated mentoring and the lack of a rigorous evidence base underpinning current mentoring practice with adults on the autism spectrum. It also suggests that to offer mentoring to this group outside of a formal supervised structure without training and support is reckless and potentially harmful. The current situation is at best patchy. Inadequate supervision of mentors is a particular concern, as is the lack of clarity on boundaries with regards to mentoring support. Training does not currently appear to be required and where it is offered it is unclear as to whether this offers the essential safeguards or informed by the autistic perspective. 


The findings have been published as Martin N. et al. (2017). Does mentoring offer effective support to autistic adults. A mixed-methods pilot study Advances in Autism. 3(4),     Please see below for the link.

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14 Mar 2018