Leeds Beckett University (UNITED KINGDOM)
About this paper:
Appears in: INTED2016 Proceedings
Publication year: 2016
Pages: 1800-1811
ISBN: 978-84-608-5617-7
ISSN: 2340-1079
doi: 10.21125/inted.2016.1373
Conference name: 10th International Technology, Education and Development Conference
Dates: 7-9 March, 2016
Location: Valencia, Spain
Autism is a pervasive development disorder that presents difficulties in the social use of communication and unusual patterns of behaviour, due to e.g. interests of unusual intensity or focus, or unusual reactions to sensory input. Whilst autism on its own is not an indicator of academic ability, many young people on the autism spectrum find it difficult to enter university. And those who do start a degree course are prone to dropping out early.

This paper reports on a research study investigating current provisions, aspirations and means by which autistic students are supported on their journey into Higher Education. The study is part of the Autism&Uni project, a European-funded initiative to widen access to Higher Education for students on the autism spectrum (

We conducted an extensive literature review and a multi-national survey across 5 European countries (Finland, Netherlands, UK, Poland, Spain), involving seven key stakeholder groups:
1. Young autistic people not yet at university
2. Autistic students currently at university
3. Autistic students who have completed or dropped out of a university course
4. Parents and carers
5. School teachers and mentors
6. Academic or support staff working at universities
7. Autism organisations and professionals

Alongside the survey, we also talked to a number of students about their individual experiences – what affected them and how they overcame adversity. The research, based on literature review, 281 survey responses and 16 individual experience case studies, revealed many challenges faced by young autistic people, including:
• unrealistic expectations of what university study is like,
• finding out that the study subject is not as expected
• the reluctance to identify as autistic unless there are clear benefits,
• not accessing personalised support right from the start – partly due to non-disclosure,
• lack of consistency in personal support,
• a focus on the ‘deficits’ of autism, rather than the strengths students can bring,
• an unfamiliarity with advocating effectively for oneself,
• the expectation to perform at the same high standard as in secondary education,
• difficulty in understanding ambiguous and open assignment briefs correctly,
• lack of understanding why something needs to be done and how much time to spend on it,
• difficulty picking up unwritten social rules when interacting with tutors and fellow students,
• unrealistic expectations of fellow students’ interests and dedication,
• difficulty in finding a regular routine and managing their own time,
• facing the challenge of moving away from home for the first time,
• the social isolation that often comes with living in a new environment.

In our paper we will look at these challenges in detail and show how an online toolkit developed as part of the Autism&Uni project can go some way to help students navigate the transition from school to university. The toolkit covers the following topics:
• Myths and Facts about studying at university
• Choosing your study topic and university
• Getting the right support at the right time
• Talking about your autism
• Reducing anxiety and stress
• Studying independently
• Finding your way around university
• Advocating for yourself
• Managing difficult situations

By understanding and facing up to the challenges, students can be empowered to take positive action and develop their full potential, contribute to society and live fulfilled and happy lives.
Autism, disability support, transition, anxiety, social isolation.