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Supporting autistic people into university

Martyn Brown is the Student Support Coordinator for London and South East and Rachel Babbidge is Transitions Support Coordinator, both at the National Autistic Society. Here they offer advice and information on supporting autistic students into university, including what and where to study and preparing for university life.

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Authors: Martyn Brown, Rachel Babbidge

Supporting autistic people into university

Many autistic people have the ability and aspirations to attend university but often there are a range of concerns about the transition to higher education. This can include:

  • how they will adjust to university life
  • how they will cope with the greater expectations of independence 
  • what support they can get within the university. 

In this article we will explore different strategies for supporting autistic people with:

  • the decision making process
  • preparing for university life

Choosing a university

When looking at what they want to study, students should be encouraged and supported to express their views; focusing on what subjects they enjoy and what they want for their future. Students can consult with their careers advice service in school and/or look at advice online from organisations such as Prospects, Universities and Colleges Admission Service and the National Autistic Society.

Students may choose to attend universities close to where they live so they can remain at home, or they may prefer to study further away.

Benefits of studying closer to home include:

  • familiarity with the local area
  • being close to family and friends for support
  • having a choice whether to live at home or in accommodation.

Some advantages of studying away from home include: 

  • having new experiences
  • more independence
  • developing new skills.

Some students may prefer the familiarity of home during their first year at university and may then move into student accommodation during their second year when they are settled on their course.

Open Days

Once the student has decided on what they would like to study it is a good idea to visit a variety of different universities to get a feel for what it would be like to study there. Universities often hold open days during the autumn and winter period each year in order to allow prospective students the opportunity to visit campuses, talk to staff and students and see what facilities are on offer. Some universities will make adjustments for autistic students such as visiting the campus on a separate day when it is less busy. If the university is reluctant to do this then the student may want to question whether it offers the right learning environment for them.

It is helpful to explore the information on universities websites and get in touch if there are any additional support needs for the open days. For example prior to any open days, some students may benefit from visuals such as maps and photos of staff they are to meet. 

Supporting students to create a list of questions to ask can be a helpful starting point to ensure they make the most of the open day. Some students may feel anxious or worried about the prospect of visiting a new place and meeting new people, so it can be helpful to make sure they know they can take someone with them for support.

Some further questions for students to consider when visiting higher education settings: 

  • What knowledge and understanding of autism and related conditions does the disability service/student support services have? What learning resources are available and what specific support is available to autistic students? Disability or support service usually have a stand on the open day, but is it worth arranging an appointment.
  • Find out what services, support and activities are available outside of academic study. Do they offer any groups for autistic students? Speaking to the Students’ Union is a good idea as they will often have a student elected as “Disabled Students’ Officer” or similar.
  • How is the course delivered and what assessments are involved? What support or adjustments are available for autistic students?
  • Consider how the student will cope in that particular environment and what adjustments could be made to support their learning and reduce stress.
  • Check to see whether the provision is on one campus or spread over a number of sites and what travelling may be involved.

It is essential that the student has the support they need to allow them to enjoy their studies. 

Applying to university

Disclosure of diagnosis

The UCAS application process can be daunting and some students may feel anxious about disclosing their disability at such an early stage. It is the student’s choice whether or not to disclose but it is important to be aware that the Equality Act 2010 (and the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 in Northern Ireland) makes it unlawful for universities and colleges to discriminate against students with disabilities by treating them less favourably when offering places. Disclosing a disability can be of benefit when at university as students will be able to access more support. 

Application deadlines vary from course to course and university to university so it is important to check dates. Both the university and UCAS websites can provide this information. It is important to also look at the entry requirements for each course as sometime courses (for example healthcare and education) require work experience as well as certain exam grades.

Funding

Funding arrangements will differ depending on which nation the person lives in, and whether they decide to go to a further education college or to university.

Those doing a higher education course, whether at a university or at a college, can apply for can apply for Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA). This can be used to pay for extra support, equipment or travel costs. The student will need a letter from their GP that states when they were diagnosed and the impact that autism will have in their everyday life during their course. A simple letter from a GP stating their diagnosis or a diagnostic report is no longer acceptable. Young people and their families may also be entitled to claim some benefits whilst studying.

Options if the student doesn’t achieve the grades

Any preparations for university should include decisions about what to do if the student doesn’t get their expected exam results and is unable to study their preferred course.

One option is to go through the “clearing” process to find a place on a similar course and/or at a similar university where the student meets the entry requirements. Clearing happens during a short time period in August after BTEC, A-Level and Higher Grade results are published; so there is not much time to find out about student support, teaching, accommodation etc. in other universities.

Decisions have to be made quickly and this may be stressful for autistic students. Clearing involves contacting both UCAS and one or more universities to enquire about applying for courses that they have places available on. This can be an opportunity to ask about what support is available however the advisers will have limited knowledge on this and may only be able to focus on your application rather than other elements to attending university.

Some other options when students do not meet expected exam grades are: 

  • taking an extra year at college and re-sitting an exam or assessment to try and get the grades that are required
  • attending the “second choice” university as this will often have lower entry requirements than the first choice
  • considering a foundation degree first before progressing onto a full undergraduate course
  • deferring going to university for a year and using the time to reapply and consider all options which meet both the grades and career goals that the student has.

REMEMBER: University isn’t the only option. There are often a range of other options such as studying with the Open University, supported employment schemes and apprenticeships.

Transition to university

Once the student has a place at a university, the next important stage is to start preparing for the actual transition to higher education study. There are a range of different actions that can be taken to help prepare the student including:

  • support with developing life skills such as cooking and shopping
  • planning key journeys that the student will need to take for example to the shops, around campus, visits home etc.
  • attending a university induction day specifically for autistic students
  • scheduling regular visits back home if studying away
  • planning some social or non-academic activities/events that the students would like to take part in
  • joining campus or halls of residence groups on social media in order to get to know people before arriving
  • preparing a lists of key contacts and questions the student wishes to ask in the first week
  • preparing some key coping strategies such as finding quiet places, developing strategies to reduce anxieties, using student support services 
  • making sure equipment such as pens, writing pads and computers are purchased before starting the course as this will help to reduce anxiety
  • focussing on the positives of attending university rather than any negatives.

If some, or all of these, are in place, it can make the move to university study a much smoother, easier and more successful one. As such it is a good idea to start preparing in advance in order to make the transition as best as it can be.

Futher reading

UCAS offers advice on the application process 

The National Autistic Society Support Service for autistic students 

The National Autistic society has advice on supporting autistic students in college or university

The National Autistic Society Transitions Support Service

Date added: 12 June 2018