Autism awareness: considerations for HE

The HE sector still has some way to go in addressing the niche requirements of students with autism, says Helen Rowland

The number of autistic students going to university is soaring – growing by more than 200% in five years. But, the HE sector still has some way to go in addressing the niche requirements of students with autism to allow them to reach their full potential.

Cardiff based law firm, Capital Law, works extensively in the HE sector, and was recently appointed to the HE Sector Legal Services Framework Agreement. Here, Capital Law Commercial Disputes Associate, Helen Rowland, looks at what universities should be doing to support students with autism during their education.

Research shows that one in 100 people are on the autism spectrum. Of these, one in three (aged 16-24), are not in education, employment or training. However, the tide is turning, and the number of autistic students attending university is sky rocketing. Recent figures suggest growth of more than 200% in just five years.[i] This is excellent progress in an arena that has historically underrepresented the autistic community. Nevertheless, there is still much work to be done to support students with autism during their education. Autistic students are still less likely to complete their course than their classmates. And, of those that do graduate, over 25% later find themselves unemployed.

What challenges do students on the autistic spectrum face in higher education?

Research shows that 3.5% of students with a social communication disorder or autism spectrum disorder will not complete their course, compared to 2.6% of their course mates.[ii] This is due to a range of factors that affect the autistic community far more profoundly than others, including: difficulties in handling social isolation from being in a new environment; not knowing who to ask for support; being stressed by certain sensory aspects; communicating and working in groups; ambiguous questions in assignments or exams; time management and establishing routine.

Autistic students are still less likely to complete their course than their classmates. And, of those that do graduate, over 25% later find themselves unemployed

Of course, all new students tackle these same issues when going to university for the first time. But, for autistic students factors like the ones outlined above can rapidly lead to anxiety, depression and feelings of isolation. Consequently, drop-out rates are higher.

How can universities identify those who need support?

Studies have shown that only 39% of students received support for their autism during their studies at UK universities.[iii] Of this (already low) proportion, 48% did not receive support before the end of their first semester, when many of the factors which exacerbate the feelings of anxiety, depression and isolation would have been at their worst.

So, how can this be remedied?

It’s clear that providing support when it’s needed most can increase retention and graduation of autistic students who may otherwise drop out. Universities need to act sooner – and more effectively. But being aware of a student’s autism can be difficult. Some students know they’re autistic and freely declare it, but others choose not to say anything at all. Others may not identify as disabled – or may not believe they’re entitled to any support.  Others might not have a diagnosis.

However, under the Equality Act 2010, universities have a duty of care to put ‘reasonable adjustments’ in place to support these students – even before they ask for help.

The Equality Act places a high level of responsibility on organisations to keep an eye on potential clues or issues that could give any indication of disability, and to act accordingly.

To ensure they’re supporting students as best as they can – and protect themselves from any potential claims – universities should:

1.) make it easy for students to disclose a disability at any time during their studies, including during the application and welcome process
2.) engage in open discussions with students should they suspect any likelihood of them requiring reasonable adjustments or think they might have a disability they should be aware of
3.) ensure they’re aware of individual circumstances.

Students should only have to disclose their diagnosis and requirements once. So, if there is only one chance to pick up on a declaration of autism and any subsequent requirements, the university must be able to act straightaway and have relevant policies in place to move forward effectively.

What are ‘reasonable adjustments’ and how can universities make them?

Autistic students are generally expected to adapt to the university environment. And there is the argument that trying to establish reasonable adjustments for autistic students further separates them from their peers and exacerbates their sense of difference.

Some forms of support can easily be provided for all students. For example, tech support is regarded as hugely helpful, including assistive software on all computers, recording lectures and making lecture slides and handouts available online 24 hours in advance. Additional offerings, like early arrival schemes to all students who might need time to acclimatise to campus, are also encouraged.

Further adjustments that specifically help students with autistic spectrum disorders include specialist tuition/administrative support; support workers acting as mediators for team work; extra time and additional support to check understanding; modifying procedures for testing or assessment; providing information in accessible formats and the requirement for university staff to have awareness training.

Planning in advance to anticipate the requirements of students with autism is invaluable

It can be difficult to determine what is considered ‘reasonable’, so universities should consider several factors when thinking about adjustments. Are the adjustments reasonable, or simply desirable? What would the adjustments involve for the university? Would it significantly disadvantage the student if the adjustment wasn’t made? And so on.

Plan, communicate and engage

Planning in advance to anticipate the requirements of students with autism is invaluable. And the best way to establish a framework for an autism policy is to ask autistic students themselves for their views. Additionally, consult with local government or disability groups.

One of the most important things is to remember to remain flexible and imaginative. Be open to discussion and keep the reasonable adjustments in place under review at all times throughout a student’s education. By doing so, universities can provide autistic students with an opportunity to flourish, both at university and beyond.

Helen Rowland is a commercial disputes lawyer at Capital Law who works extensively in the HE sector and specialises in student matters

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