The number of disabled students entering higher education, whilst still disproportionately low (Hopkins, 2011), is growing fast. Autistic students make up an increasingly significant proportion of this number (HESA, 2017). However the sector is ‘playing catch-up’, being a relative latecomer in terms of legislative imperatives.
In recent years, both in the UK and more widely, the emerging widening participation agenda has led to changes in policy to address the needs of ‘non-traditional’ students (Adams and Brown, 2006). This focus has included disabled students, although arguably they have been given relatively low priority compared to other disadvantaged groups (Barer, 2007).
Autistic students occupy a distinct place within this landscape. There is a high co-morbidity associated with autism, particularly in relation to mental health and dyslexia, so that autistic students represent a significant and complex group. Given the poor outcomes associated even with the most intellectually gifted (Billsted, Gillberg and Gillberg, 2011) and reports from autistic adults that autism should be regarded as a different “way of being” (Sinclair, 1993, page unknown), there is a pressing need to take account of their first-hand perspectives. Studies which have done so have revealed important discrepancies between student and staff perceptions.
The available literature highlights the need for HEIs to better understand this marginalised group in order to effectively anticipate adjustments as they enter higher education. Moreover, with recent changes in legislation, including in particular Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA) reforms, the sector is called upon to adapt its support services from helping students:
“deemed entitled...by virtue of a diagnosis to one which empowers the learner, is accessible to and benefits all students.” (Department for Education, 2017, p. 11)
Through the AuVision project, we wanted to get a better understanding of how we might improve their experience and take some steps to do it in practical terms.
Start/end date: 2015-2017
Beneficiaries: autistic students at UoB and staff supporting them
Theme/focus: educational enhancement
The ‘AuVision’ project was a peer-to-peer project co-ordinated by academic staff and an independent mentor from Student Support Services. It was designed as far as possible to be a user-led project. Autistic students and alumni from the University of Birmingham (UoB) were employed as Project Assistants and consulted with their peers and alumni via one to one interviews and focus groups over one academic year from 2015-2016.
What we did
- We recruited autistic students and alumni as Project Assistants
- We used this student/staff collaboration to consult with autistic students across the university about their student experience
- We took a ‘snapshot’ approach to check in at key points over the course of one academic year
- We used the collaboration to develop an online resource for the use of UoB staff in all parts of the university.
What we achieved
- The project findings provided a comprehensive set of recommendations, not only for supporting autistic students, but to inform an inclusive curriculum approach generally
- The resource developed to share findings is now in use across the university and has been adopted by other HEI institutions
- Students valued the peer-to-peer consultation:
“I felt more comfortable because I didn’t have to explain any of my quirks as they were accepted as part of my autism. I didn’t have to feel embarrassed about any of the support I needed or any of the difficulties I was having because the interviewer had that personal understanding.”
- The Project team valued the work experience:
“I think I have improved my time management skills, as well as getting more research experience, which is very important to me.”
- The Project co-ordinators valued the ‘insider’ perspective which could only be gained through the collaborative approach.
What we learnt
- The Project team brought a broad skill set to the project and were more involved than anticipated from the early stages; e.g. in training and induction. They also brought important new ideas to the design and delivery. For example, they suggested a form of words to address the peer to peer element of the interview process.
- The research was designed to be user-led, recruiting autistic students as paid Project Assistants. An unforeseen but important outcome of this was the fact that students had the opportunity to take part in positive work experience. They developed a range of skills that developed their self-confidence and employability
- Opportunities for project assistants and participants to have real input into the development of the project often needed creative approaches which required a time commitment from all parties, but reaped huge rewards for everyone concerned.
Further links, resources and communities of practice
Autism & UNi resource:
Article based on the project:
For more information, contact the projects office on firstname.lastname@example.org, quoting reference CSLP096.