Expert Opinion

Breaking the barriers for autistic students

In today’s post, Kate Myers, Disability Adviser and Kate Dean, Disability Assessment Centre Manger talk about their passion for removing barriers for autistic students and their recent project with the National Autistic Society.

As professionals working in the disability sector we frequently work with autistic students in identifying the barriers present in a higher education environment and ways to manage or overcome these. Both the Disability Advice team and the Disability Assessment Centre aim to ensure appropriate and effective support is available for disabled students based on a holistic assessment of their needs. This includes making recommendations for reasonable adjustments to course delivery and assessment and recommendations for support needs to be funded via the government funding, Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA). Whilst the availability of funding is undoubtedly positive, in order to justify the recommendations, a student’s needs must be assessed based on a deficit model, focusing on the difficulties experienced rather than abilities. This usually echoes the student’s experience throughout school and college and can impact on confidence, self-esteem and recognition of individual skills and strengths.

Working closely with our academic colleague Dr Marc Fabri has enabled us to benefit from his research Autism&Uni, and Marc’s findings confirmed our shared anecdotal experience, that many autistic students choose a course which matches their specialist interest. However expectations of course content and University life in general can be unrealistic. Our commitment to recognising the strengths and skills within each individual autistic student and to understanding how we can create an environment in which students can flourish, has enabled us to identify that we need to create pathways that manage expectations and enable students to utilise their abilities in the most positive way. For many students we work with transition is the most critical point in ensuring future academic success. This refers not only to transition into University, but from one course level to the next and then transition out into the workplace.

This was the starting point for our project with the National Autistic Society and over the last 18 months we have worked to review all aspects of the Disability Assessment Centre's provision to ensure the service offered is as meaningful as possible for autistic students. As part of this process we sought the views of autistic students and their parents which shaped our service development.

In order to justify support and funding we are still required to detail the difficulties and challenges faced by the student. However, working with autistic students has taught us that no two autistic students are the same and identifying successful strategies is a creative process which should capitalise on strengths, increase independence and enable the student to recognise their own skills and abilities. Getting this right is integral to a positive transition, however we have more work to do to enhance existing pathways…

Our recent transition pathways conference held to mark World Autism Awareness Day brought together over 60 delegates from higher education institutions and support providers across the country to share experiences and ideas. The next step is to link with the ‘Deep Dive Project’ for disabled students currently taking place across our University; this focuses on creating an institutional inclusive agenda which anticipates needs and removes barriers for the benefit of everyone. One action from this is to deliver Autism Awareness training in order to raise awareness and understanding, disseminate best practice and encourage colleagues to make small changes that have maximum impact in the removal of barriers.