- Many students with autism want to go to university but can lack confidence to apply.
- Students need to be told the range higher education options available to them.
- Independence in everyday skills such as shopping and use of transport should be encouraged.
- Support should be given to help build social and relationship skills.There should be a plan for the transition of support mechanisms.
Students on the autism spectrum are often interested in going to university and many have the academic knowledge and skills to attain a university degree. However, attendance is low and dropout rates are high.
Being on the autism spectrum, referred to here as having ‘autism,’ is characterised by developmental differences in social communication and a restricted or repetitive pattern of behaviour, interests or activities, which varies in severity between individuals. Many students with autism want to go to university – and are academically capable – but can lack confidence about even applying, and those who do start university often drop out within the first year. The issues associated with autism can contribute to this, for example difficulties interacting and making friends can lead to isolation, and the change in routine required can be overwhelming for an individual who prefers predictable routines. Finally, whilst increased independence and/or living away from home can be challenging for all students, this challenge can be tenfold for students with autism. However, there are many aspects of autism which are beneficial to studying, such as attention to detail or having a keen interest in their subject.
The University of Bath Autism Summer School (BASS) is a residential summer school designed to help prepare students with autism with the transition to university, highlight their strengths and build their confidence. The participation and feedback by the students has helped inform our suggestions about easing university transition.
Higher education options
Students with autism may have assumptions about university – perhaps they think their autism prevents them from attending, or that university is only for typically developing students.
Tell students about university, explain what it is for and explore their options. Aside from the conventional full-time degree programme, alternatives include living at home, Open University or distance learning, part-time courses or studying one module at a time. Students may be unaware of these pathways, so explore these with them: a visit to a local university could help make this a reality. Involve the family by giving them the information to support their child if they choose to pursue higher education.
Students with autism may have more concerns about university than other students. We found they worried more about whether they would manage social aspects of university such as making friends or living in shared accommodation. Some of these concerns were specific, for example how to navigate through Freshers’ week, or cope with sociable flatmates who throw parties. Roleplay and clear instructions can help here.
At school, the needs of someone with autism may have been understood and support services initiated by others, but at university students has to seek out support themselves. For example, they will need to inform student disability advisors about their diagnosis. This disclosure is a gateway to accessing support with a range of needs including a note-taker or exam arrangements. Some universities offer peer mentoring support and can have specific resources for students with autism such as autism aware counsellors. Researching the general and autism-specific support services available at different universities may even inform applications and choice of higher education institution. Support, encouragement and practice for situations where it might be beneficial to share an autism diagnosis will be invaluable.
University transition can result in a huge increase in independence but – though this is not a universal truth – students with autism prefer this change to be graded rather than to come all at once. Gradual development and practice of particular skills in a familiar setting can be a helpful way to achieve the independent living skills needed at university. BASS gave students the chance to stay in university accommodation, eat at university food outlets, and for some travel independently to campus. Doing these activities without the additional challenge of starting a degree course can be considered helpful.
Schools and families can help students with autism practise everyday activities such as visiting a quiet local café to become confident in ordering and paying for food. This is especially useful for those with complex dietary requirements. Show the students that catering for their particular needs away from home is possible.
Living in student halls – or away from family for the first time – can be a daunting experience. Try to alleviate this worry with a campus tour, or look at the various housing options at university.
If student chooses to live away from the university, they may need to use public transport. Check their confidence and skill level with this, and help them practise buying tickets and checking timetables. Having the confidence to travel independently can really boost self-esteem.
Social and relationship skills
Students with autism may struggle with the subtleties of social situations. They may lack experience, so when unsure of what to do in certain situations, students may ask someone or unfortunately just avoid the situation altogether. This may not be an option at university, so encourage students to roleplay social situations, guiding them to the best or most appropriate outcomes. The interpersonal skills needed for group work will be essential. As a teacher, you can explain how interacting with students and staff can facilitate learning as well as improve social skills. Running group work sessions for simple tasks can be achieved in the classroom and provide excellent opportunities for practice, problem-solving and constructive feedback.
The first week of university – Fresher’s week – can be daunting, especially for those with sensory sensitivities. Universities often create quiet or ‘safe’ places which can be used if things get too much, and the Disability Service will know where. Knowing what to expect in Fresher’s week can help, so reading blogs online about students’ experiences can be beneficial. Fresher’s week also presents great opportunities to develop new networks and make friends.
University clubs and societies can be quite ‘niche’. Generally there is a club or society for any interest or hobby one can think of. These are ready-made forums for people with shared interests to meet, allowing social interaction to be topic based and more structured.
Although a student with Autism might prefer to avoid the bars and cafes during Fresher’s week, encourage them to venture out and sign up for clubs and societies that interest them, or start one of their own. Anxiety in social situations is common in people with Autism, but learning how to overcome this anxiety can be managed with self-help materials or intervention from psychological therapy services for those who are significantly affected by this.
Autism strengths and challenges
Having autism is not necessarily a barrier to university. There are plenty of positive role models with autism including students, lecturers and entrepreneurs.
At Bath Autism Summer School (BASS), graduates and current university students with autism talk to the transitional students, offering first-hand accounts of their experiences and coping strategies. These talks are highly rated by the students attending the summer school, so ask nearby universities if you could be put in touch with one of their success stories.
Students with autism may have skills and strength which are advantageous at university such as attention to detail, a strong sense of logic, or a keen interest in the subject. Graduates with autism talk about how much they enjoyed being in an academic environment with other students interested in the same subject.
Having autism may make some aspects of university harder, but having a better understanding of the diagnosis and how it affects the individual can help.
Recognising anxiety, its effects and how to manage it are key ingredients of anxiety and stress management workshops. These are often available locally and can be sourced through GP surgeries, or self-help books or apps can help generalise the strategies learned. Changes in routine and other sources of uncertainty and unpredictability can be stressful. You can help students prepare for these by making lesson plans and discussing how last minute changes will be introduced to help them prepare for this. This can also help with group work skills if the students work in pairs.
Overall, preparation is key. Students with autism can be successful at university if they are supported to overcome the initial, social and practical challenges.
- Bath Autism Summer School: www.bath.ac.uk/psychology/autism-summer-school.html
- College and university: supporting students with Asperger syndrome: www.autism.org.uk/18333
- Best Practice Guides for professionals supporting autistic students in Higher Education: www.autism-uni.org/bestpractice
- Planning transition from high school to postsecondary education for students with autism: http://foa.sagepub.com/content/25/3/158.full.pdf
- Sarita Freedman, Developing College Skills in Students with Autism and Asperger's Syndrome. A book on preparing students with autism for university
- Valerie Gaus, Living Well on the Spectrum. Includes a helpful chapter and worksheets for disclosing your diagnosis
- Brenda Hogan and Lee Brosnan, An Introduction to Coping with Anxiety, (Books on Prescription)
Use the following items in the Toolkit to help you put the ideas in this article into practice:
- Handout – Key people who support university students with autism14.76
- Form – Prepare students with autism for higher education15.61 KB
Steph Calley, a research assistant at the Centre for Applied Autism Research (CAAR), wrote this article in collaboration with Dr Ailsa Russell, Dr Chris Ashwin & Professor Mark Brosnan. For further information, see http://go.bath.ac.uk/caar.