2019 Digifest speaker, Dr Marc Fabri, led a project to help autistic students starting out at university. Here, he explains how universities can develop a more inclusive experience for these young people.
University life is challenging for any student, but those who are on the autism spectrum can find it even tougher.
Through the Autism&Uni research project, I have been working with autistic students to find out what they need, and to develop effective support.
Autistic students in higher education have so much to offer. They’re often very committed to their chosen subject, academically strong, and highly focused on their work - so they’ve got the potential to do very well.
Unfortunately, though, a significant proportion struggle with the transition from school. The three-year, EU-funded Erasmus Lifelong Learning project, Autism&Uni, was developed to address this issue.
I led this project in the UK, and since it ended in 2016, I’ve continued to develop it at Leeds Beckett University. Autistic students have been involved throughout, and their unique perspectives have informed and shaped a set of project outcomes. One of these is a digital toolkit for new students that’s now being rolled out by a number of universities, including Birmingham, Portsmouth, Trinity College, Dublin and Leeds Beckett itself.
So, what do autistic students often struggle with? Many of their challenges are the same as those that affect every student, such as whether the course matches their expectations, how to live away from home for the first time, and how to establish helpful routines. There are others, too. Understanding unwritten social rules, social isolation, and sensory overload can all be overwhelming.
Another issue is institutionally-provided support in HE, which can be patchy. In contrast, many secondary schools provide strong and consistent support to help autistic students achieve well, so they often come to university expecting to fly high. However, all too often, they find that the safety network is no longer there.
The disabled students’ allowance (DSA) covers extra support with academic needs but, for autistic students, the biggest challenges can be around how to live well and rub along with other people, whether that’s in class or in shared accommodation.
Extra support is needed, but feedback from our workshops with autistic students show that a ‘one size fits all’ approach won’t work. You can’t make assumptions. These young people need consistent, individually tailored support - which is a big ask.
That’s where the Autism&Uni online toolkit can help. It’s designed to help students prepare for university life both before they arrive and afterwards, and to offer strategies for overcoming problems. It covers issues such as choosing a subject, accessing the right support at the right time, reducing anxiety, studying independently, finding your way around campus, speaking up for yourself, and managing tricky situations. There’s also a range of resources, including guides for staff, offering help and ideas for how to support autistic students.
It’s essential that universities reframe the way they think about autism when they’re planning services. Thinking about autism support simply in terms of helping to overcome perceived deficits sells students short.
Autistic students have important strengths. By celebrating these and designing support that helps them shine, we show them (and others) that they’re both welcome and valued. This is, after all, what we’d do when planning support for any other group of students.
This blog is based on an article in the Digifest magazine 2019. Delegates can hear Marc's presentation, part of the ‘developing a more inclusive student experience’ session, at 13:45 on day two of Digifest, Wednesday 13 March, in Hall 6.