The numbers of students seeking university places and successfully achieving entrance in the US has increased by 800% in the last ten years. These numbers are reflected in the UK and Australia with disability support staff highlighting that along with Mental Health issues, students with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) make up the biggest increase they’ve seen.

Although legislation such as the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) in the US, the Equality Act in the UK and the Disability Discrimination Act in Australia seek to ensure access on an equitable basis, the reality is often different. Some students may choose not to disclose their diagnosis and only seek help at crisis points. Encouraging and clear messages given by institutions both in reducing stigma and encouraging applications from a diverse group are the first stage in supporting students to seek help.

Ensuring a positive university experience for all students can be a testing process. There are a great number of considerations to take into account. Everything from lectures, to housing, to online learning platforms is a factor. For students with autism, the challenges can be exacerbated. There are added challenges in creating and sustaining a positive learning environment. These challenges revolve around ensuring the student’s educational access, and social access. It is essential to the experience of the student that neither aspect is disregarded. Social access and experience can be just as important in providing a quality university experience as educational access is.

We’ve compiled a list of some of the biggest challenges to providing access to students with an ASD and some proposed solutions to these challenges.

Providing access to course content.

Many students with autism have no problem with consuming course content. However, for some, there are difficulties in audio processing, so a service such as specialist live captioning can help bring focus and ease of understanding. For others, it takes longer to process the information, so a fast-paced environment won’t provide access. Faculty/Lecturers need to be aware of additional student requirements so that they can ensure their class material is as accessible as possible.

Fostering independence in the student with autism.

High school (secondary school) may have provided a very structured environment for students with autism. Living at home, with a fixed schedule and guidance from parents, teachers and often individual support staff can provide the sort of experience which builds confidence, but does not necessarily provide the experience of independent living and self-management needed in a university environment. This can lead to problems at university where students are expected to be independent in organizing their life and studies.

It is important to provide assistance to students with autism going through this transition. Ensuring that they know how to get to and from classes, use online learning tools, submit assignments and accomplish other necessary tasks will be vital. However, it is important that the person facilitating this allows the student to accept their own responsibility and does not elicit dependence.

Ensuring that the student is not suffering from isolation.

Generally, people with autism do not have the same level of social skills as their non-autistic peers. This can lead to exclusion from their peer group, which may damage their university experience. One way to ensure that the student is not suffering from isolation can be a ‘buddy’ scheme, whereby a student acts as their buddy, making sure they are understood, enjoying the university experience, getting along with their studies, and providing an outlet for communication. Whilst not being the usual route to friendship, it can open doors to potential friendships with other students.

An important consideration with a buddy scheme is to set expectations clearly, to not allow the student with autism to become too reliant on their buddy. This will reduce the impact in the event of the buddy completing studies, deciding to leave the buddy scheme or leaving the university. Changing buddies on a semi-regular basis is advisable.

Compared to the overall drop-out rate of university students, there is a much greater prevalence of leaving university studies early among students with a autism. If we are to ensure that people with autism take their place in the workplace, successfully navigating university and achieving their degree can be a great start.

Written by Eileen Hopkins, Executive Director UK


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