Brian Irvine

Doctoral Researcher


ACER (Autism Centre for Education and Research), School of Education

Research Topic

Developing frameworks for Specialist (Autism) Mentoring in Higher Education

Research Summary

There has been a remarkable increase in autistic students attending university; from 60 UK university students in 2003, to 11,015 students in 2018. Support for autistic students in the UK comes via the Disabled Students Allowance to engage a Specialist (Autism) Mentor to provide ‘highly specialist, specifically tailored, one to one support which helps students address barriers to learning‘.

Current analysis still finds little or no literature on optimising this Specialist (Autism) Mentoring support.  Pilot studies have shown the worth of such programmes, with good mentors developing tailored partnerships to bridge the individual to university systems. Students have reported high levels of satisfaction with the Specialist (Autism) Mentoring offered, in particular mentees have reported empowerment through a ‘person-centred ethos’ with mentees ‘appreciated for themselves rather than modified to fit in’. 

 To this end this research asks, what are the themes inherent to good Specialist (Autism) Mentoring?

Following a scoping survey seeking a national picture via university disability officers of the UK’s 130 universities, a monthly online structured diary will be solicited to representative mentees and mentors to capture the themes that are discussed in mentoring sessions. 

Permission will be sought to interview mentees and mentors. Interviews will be thematically coded and consolidated into a thick description of mentoring which will be considered by the participants in the following phase.

Co-creating knowledge with autistic expertise is a robust method for understanding the social interplay inherent in the mentoring relationship. A participatory panel of autistic students, mentors and academics and allied mentors and disability practitioners, will be recruited.  Anonymised data from the preceding phases will be shared with these groups who will be tasked with linking of semantic and latent themes. These conversations, and the participants’ own experience of university, will form the basis of a framework for mentors to adopt.

Universities will have a mechanism for ensuring excellent provision of mentoring. Specialist (Autism) Mentors will be provided clarity in their task and be empowered to share their experience with academics. Furthermore, these themes of mentoring should also provide clear expectations of the role to enable recruitment of autistic mentors into the profession.   Potentially, neurodiverse campuses will be enhanced through autistic students’ advocacy in the design of their own university encounters. It is hoped that the participatory elements of the research design will also challenge the deficit models of autism that mentees face.

Research Interests 

  • Autism
  • Higher education
  • Inclusion
  • Wellbeing support

Research Supervisors

 Dr Andrea Macleod & Professor Karen Guldberg


 Brian has been a Specialist (Autism) Mentor for the last 7 years. He has written Apps for autistic access to public spaces, was a primary school teacher at an inclusion provision, a childminder with a good pirate impersonation, founded a network of clergy-husbands, and was once Head of RE and Philosophy in a secondary modern school.  To relax he keeps bees, as it’s a hobby where only the very persistent intrude.


  • BA Theo (King’s College, London)
  • PGCE (Oxford)
  • MEd Autism Adults (University of Birmingham)

Teaching Responsibilities

Specialist (Autism) Mentor at Royal Holloway, University of London

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