Project launched to encourage autistic students
Led by Dr Marc Fabri at Leeds Met, the three-year project will see researchers from the UK, Finland, Spain, the Netherlands and Poland collaborating to establish what the needs are of students with high-functioning autism going into higher education (HE) and what the potential barriers are to them succeeding.
They will use this knowledge to develop a blueprint for a digital support tool, such as a website, which can be used to support students with autism, their parents, lecturers, other students and the university itself, helping autistic students to achieve their potential.
"Approximately 1% of people are somewhere on the autistic spectrum," Marc explains: "but in UK HE it is only 0.08%. Autistic people are underrepresented in higher education and overrepresented in the statistics of those dropping out."
"People with autism can have certain specific skills that are very useful to the labour market but it may be other aspects that make it difficult for them to function normally in the education system without extra support and understanding of their needs. We involve autistic people in the project right from the start to give them real agency in designing the solutions"
The goal of the project, which has received €331,000 funding from the EU Lifelong Learning Programme, is to identify and develop good practice, and share it across Europe.
Dr Fabri's background is in how emotions can be used in creative technology - for example the use of avatars in real-time 3D environments, such as Second Life, and how the use of facial expressions affects other people. He explains: "People with autism find it difficult to read others' emotions and to understand how things that they say and do affect people emotionally. So I have investigated how we can use Virtual Reality and avatars to help people recognise sad, angry or happy expressions."
Leeds Met researchers will be heavily involved in the design of the support tool and, by the end of the project, will be active pilot users.
Dr Fabri adds: "The autistic spectrum can be anything from mild - commonly known as Asperger Syndrome - to severe, which can also include learning disabilities. The project is more aimed at the mild, high-functioning, end of the spectrum. Also, everyone is an individual and some can function in a very typical way in some areas but perhaps have difficulties in their personal relationships. However, this shouldn't have a detrimental effect on their studies."