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Supporting autistic people to transition into university life

In this article, Birmingham City University's Dawn Loizou and Kate Waugh discuss their Summer School for autistic students, which has been designed to help make a positive transition to life at university.

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Birmingham City University – an example of good practice

Birmingham City University is seeing increasing numbers of students with autism and Asperger’s attending university each year, which is extremely positive. As the numbers have grown, we have also noted that some of these students experience challenges, not just with their academic studies but also in their personal lives. A great deal of support is in place for their academic studies (Disabled Students’ Allowances and institutional support), and we started to think about how we could improve the non-academic experience and help these students have a more positive transition to university life.
 
We recognised that some of the challenges for our students included developing the skills needed to live independently (such as budgeting and shopping), the dynamics of sharing accommodation and difficulties engaging socially with other students. As an example, one of our students, excited by having student funding, signed a contract for an annual football season ticket, not taking into account the financial implications or the fact that he is unable to be in crowed places. Another student lowered the temperature on the shared fridge thinking it did not need to be so high. The flat mates were not happy when the food went off.
 
When things like this happen, the student can become overly-focused on the problem, preventing them from concentrating on their studies and enjoying university life. We can support students through many issues, but we prefer to equip them with the skills to help prevent difficulties occurring.
 
We wanted to help our students get off to a great start!
 
Our aims
 
Our Summer School has the following aims:

  • To help alleviate some of the anxieties and uncertainty students may have about life away from home
  • To provide a taster of living in student accommodation and with other students
  • To experience food shopping and planning and cooking a meal
  • To experience socialising and team work with other students
  • To experience using public transport
  • To encourage the students to think of their personal safety
  • To help students learn how to budget monthly and think about the financial consequences of some decisions
  • To advise students of the services and societies offered at university and introduce them to relevant staff
  • To familiarise the students with the area they will be living in

Structure
 
The Summer School was run by three members of staff from the Health and Wellbeing Team, Student Services, and we also invited two current students who have Asperger’s to join us and assist with running the event. Students were sent an invitation to join us at the Summer School, along with a life skills questionnaire asking them if they take responsibility for their own general life tasks, for example, domestic chores, financial commitments, shopping, personal care, exercise, and if they have hobbies and interests. We then designed an agenda for the event which addressed the challenges that we thought our students may have:
 
Day 1
 

  • Introduction and ice breaker (parents were invited to join us)
  • Visit to student accommodation and the adjoining sports centre (parents were invited to join us)
  • A safety awareness talk from the local police officer
  • Socialising and relationships workshop, facilitated by one of our councillors
  • A talk by the Students’ Union
  • A finance workshop, delivered by a student finance adviser
  • Discussing recipes for the evening meal along with budgeting and creating a shopping list, followed by shopping in the local supermarket
  • Cooking, eating and cleaning up
  • Free time to socialise and play games

 

Day 2
 

  • Prepare breakfast, eat and clean up, including all used rooms
  • Travel by bus for a tour of Birmingham City Centre, including a visit to the new library
  • A visit to three of our other campuses and lunch out
  • Travel by bus back to the University where the students were picked up by parents or made their own way home

How did it go?
 
The response from students and parents to the Summer School invitations was very welcome. 35 students were contacted and 15 attended, with 13 staying overnight in student accommodation.
 
The Summer School was a success and thoroughly enjoyed by all. Feedback from parents was very positive – the general sentiment being delight that ‘somebody cared’ and relief that their child had the opportunity to address some of the anxieties associated with coming to university. The students enjoyed all aspects of the two days and made many friends with whom they still keep in touch today.
 
Feedback from students:
 
“It’s made me feel more comfortable about living in halls”
 
“I really enjoyed all the activities and I know this event will benefit students for years to come”
 
“You meet other people like yourselves and it helps alleviate anxieties people may have about student life”
 
“By the end of the day I felt relaxed and got to know the fellow students better”
 

Feedback from parents:
 
“We were so pleased that there is support after the age of 18 years. Now we don’t feel so alone. Brilliant idea!”
 
“I am astounded that at this level of study you are implementing such support, considering the fight I had to get any support in school for my child”
 
“Well done and thank you so much for running the summer skills workshop! My son came back in a positive frame of mind and seemed to enjoy it. I’m so grateful and relieved”

 
Our student helpers also gave very positive feedback and felt that this support would have been invaluable to them if it had been available when they started university. They enjoyed the Summer School and made many friends. Both feel the experience has enhanced their confidence and each has tangible achievements - one has been accepted onto a Masters course and the other is now the Students’ Union Disability Officer. They are pleased to include the Summer School on their CVs and have volunteered to help again.

The event was not without its challenges:

  • Homesickness - two students became homesick and wanted to go home, however after a chat they were happy to join the rest of the students for free time and decided to stay; the next day they commented that staying had given them a real sense of achievement.
  • Timescale – we scheduled too many activities for the first day and didn’t leave enough time to relax, hence the decision to extend the event to three days and two nights in 2014.

The students who have given us feedback a year on all felt that attending the Summer School has enhanced their experience at Birmingham City University. All the students who attended the Summer School successfully completed their first year and will be enrolling for their second year shortly. The students who spent their first year in student accommodation settled in well and plan to continue living in student accommodation. Many of the attendees remain good friends and meet up often.
 
We were delighted when the team which organised and hosted the Life Skills Summer School scooped Project Team of the Year at the University’s Extra Mile Awards 2013/14.
 
If you would like to know more about our Life Skills Summer School, please contact dawn.loizou@bcu.ac.uk.  You can also watch a film about the 2013 event.

Author: Dawn Loizou & Kate Waugh

Date added: 22 August 2014