It's Autism Awareness Week this week and, incidentally, a major research project on autism led by Leeds Beckett University has just finished. The Autism&Uni project was an EU-funded initiative with partners in five countries: UK, Finland, Netherlands, Poland and Spain. Its aim was to "support greater numbers of young adults on the autism spectrum to gain access to Higher Education (HE) and to navigate the transition successfully". I have led the project, my first time as a Principal Investigator of a project on this scale, and it’s certainly been a learning experience.
Every good project starts with research, and Autism&Uni was no exception. We set out to explore what barriers autistic students may encounter at university, what universities have done to make that transition easier, what can be learned from those who succeed to graduation – and from those who don't. We talked to students, parents, teachers, lecturers and autism professionals – but mostly we talked to autistic students.
They told us about the many challenges they face – to start with, picking the right course and the right university can be daunting. Moving away from the safety of home and family can be too. Getting used to the new environment and finding your way around campus can cause great anxiety. Crowds, noisy or bright places, or simply not knowing in advance what is going to happen on a certain day, or in a certain teaching session, can be equally challenging. There are many unwritten rules around interacting with tutors and socialising with fellow students. Picking these up can be difficult for autistic young people and – when it fails – isolating.
None of the above even covers the academic side of university life. How course expectations match reality, how the different learning modules relate to each other and the “bigger picture” of a degree, how to interpret assignments in an environment where independent and critical thinking is expected, or how grades may compare to those you received at school. Group work can be a particular challenge for autistic students due to the strong social element and a tendency to either say very little, or talk a lot and go off on tangents in discussions.
Many of these are challenges for any new student. But while most can adapt reasonably quickly and draw from the support of their friends, for autistic students these challenges can rapidly lead to anxiety, isolation, depression and eventually they may drop out from their course of study completely.
This all sounds rather negative, and it is easy to get swept along in doom-and-gloom scenarios… to look for a fix that helps students on the autism spectrum integrate better. Interestingly, it is also the way much of the research literature and disability support practice has hitherto looked upon the situation of autistic students in higher education, and the challenges they encounter.
Yet autistic students are typically academically bright, show a great interest in their chosen topic area, and often work diligently towards the aims they have set themselves. Model students in many respects, really. And with the right support they can thrive at university: our research has shown that most of those who do graduate do so with flying colours.
So what type of support is appropriate, and how can the prevalent focus on deficits surrounding autism be challenged, and be turned into a more strength-based model?
Much of it is about awareness. Awareness of what autism is, of the impact on university study, and awareness of the strengths an autistic student can bring to university. With at least 1 in 100 people on the autism spectrum, chances are that most university courses have autistic students on their registers. These students may or may not have declared their condition when enrolling (which is the first step to getting support). Some may not be aware that they are on the autistic spectrum and that it is affecting them – until there is a crisis.
So it’s very important that teaching staff are aware of the characteristics of autism and how their approach to teaching can help (or hinder) autistic students make the most of their time at university. One of the key outcomes of the Autism&Uni project is a set of Best Practice Guides, aimed at those teaching and supporting students as well as those making decisions about policy and budgets. There are three guides:
- GUIDE 1: For HEI managers and senior academics: Providing decision makers with information and evidence to help develop policies and practices that will benefit autistic students and improve the general student experience.
- GUIDE 2: For HE lecturers and tutors: With practical tips based on evidence from our research to enable academics to make learning and teaching practices more accessible, and support for building better relationships with autistic students.
- GUIDE 3: For professionals supporting autistic students within or outside HE Institutions: Insights from our research and from good practice across Europe that will help professionals develop their expertise and improve student experiences and engagement with university services.
The guides are full of practical tips in the form of “takeaways” and “calls to action”, many of which are very easy to implement. They are free and available from www.autism-uni.org/bestpractice.