“Students with an ASD (including the old diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome) can be some of our most able academics. Their focus, attention to detail and in-depth knowledge of subject matter are positive assets in higher education, and these characteristics can be maximised and utilised for great outcomes.”
But what is the reality? Systems of support for ASD students must move away from traditional forms to encompass more creative solutions. A good transition process which enables students with an ASD to move from the more protective environment of school to independent living at university is vital. Liaison with feeder schools can provide good quality information, saving time wasted in getting to know and understand students’ very individual needs. Whilst all will have the core elements of ASD, the profile may vary radically from individual to individual, and an understanding of this may lead to a better outcome for the student.
Many problem areas can be addressed in the very early days if DSOs are informed of a diagnosis, either by the student themselves, or the parent/carer. Some students may choose not to disclose their condition initially, and this choice has to be respected, but their challenges may overcome their reticence.
Many students have anxiety issues. However, in a person with an ASD these anxiety issues can escalate to a point where it is impossible for the individual to function. Recognising the early indicators is a valuable skill and can only be achieved by acknowledging the individuality of the student.
Some of the most widely used schemes come in the form of mentoring or buddy schemes which have their place and may have supported the student at school. Moving into adulthood, the perception of this support may change. Helping the student understand the boundaries of the schemes may avoid future problems around relationships. Understanding that students with an ASD are vulnerable to exploitation, bullying and hate crime should underpin the development and provision of such schemes.
Many ASD students will have sensory issues, and lighting and acoustics in lectures may affect their behaviour. Lecture etiquette is something to be learned, and although eminent professors may sometimes make a mistake, learning that there is a right and a wrong way to challenge statements will make life simpler for students!
Academically, ASD students may shine. However, navigating a busy college with its noisy corridors and lectures may produce anxiety behaviours, so a haven – an office or room, for example – that they can access to destress may avoid incidents.
The need for routine and repetitive behaviours is strong in some individuals – it is essential to understand how restricting these behaviours may affect the individual. Again, a haven in which to have some quiet ‘ASD time’ is useful.
The following suggestions from the National Autistic Society in the UK give useful guidance at a practical level:
- Be mindful of using literal language in written materials.
- Follow up teaching with printed course information if necessary.
- Allow extra time after group sessions to check the student has understood everything.
- Give additional time for the student to complete the course.
- Meet and exceed your legal duties to make reasonable adjustments for students with an ASD through actively removing barriers to learning.
- Be flexible and reflect upon working practices.
The diversity of students in the university setting is a great thing, and welcoming colleagues marching to the sound of a different drum is a learning opportunity for all to learn to value and understand the differently abled.
Ai-Media Executive Director UK