M. Fabri1, P. Andrews1, H.K. Pukki2, A. Aavikko2, P. Quantock3, P. de Bra4, N. Stash4, A. Montes Garcia4, M. Merino5, M. Lancho5, C. García Serna5, A. Szukalska6, D. Modrzejewska6

1Leeds Beckett University (UNITED KINGDOM)
2Keskuspuisto Vocational College (FINLAND)
3The Foundation of European Initiatives (UNITED KINGDOM)
4Technical University Eindhoven (NETHERLANDS)
5Autismo Burgos (SPAIN)
6University of Humanities and Economics in Lodz (POLAND)
Autism&Uni is a European-funded initiative with partners in five countries (UK, Finland, Poland, Netherlands and Spain). Our aim is to support greater numbers of young adults on the autism spectrum to gain access to Higher Education (HE) and to navigate the transition from School successfully.

Autism is a lifelong developmental condition that affects how a person communicates with and relates to other people, and to the world around them. Autism is a spectrum condition, which means that it affects different people in different ways. A substantial proportion of autistic people is of average or advanced intellectual abilities and academically competent, although some have an additional learning disability.

Young people on the autism spectrum, like any other young people, want to grow up and lead full and independent lives. But although autism is not an indicator of academic ability, many find it difficult to enter university and those who do start a degree course are prone to dropping out early (in the first six months).

Our research has shown that there are many challenges for autistic students who want to enter and succeed in HE:

• difficulty picking up unwritten social rules
• difficulty tolerating sensory aspects of the university environment
• handling social isolation
• lack of access to appropriate and consistent support right from the start
• a focus on the ‘deficits’ of autism, rather than the strengths students can bring
• expectations of what university study is really like
• performing at the same high standard as in secondary education
• fellow students’ interests and dedication
• difficulty interpreting ambiguous and open assignment briefs correctly
• time-management and difficulty planning studies and revision
• uncertainty how much time to spend on a given task
• an unfamiliarity with advocating effectively for oneself

Arguably these are challenges for any new student. But while most can adapt reasonably quickly and draw from the support of their friends, for autistic students these challenges can rapidly lead to anxiety, further isolation, depression and eventually drop out from their course of study.

This is clearly an immense loss to European society and economy as many autistic people have particular strengths to offer, e.g. strong dedication to their chosen study subject, attention to detail, a high work ethic and a propensity to thinking rationally and logically.

The Autism&Uni project supports students during the critical transition period from applying to university through to arriving and settling in. We have developed an interactive toolkit that gives students strategies for overcoming abovementioned challenges by covering the following topics (amongst others):

• Myths and Facts about HE study
• Choosing your study topic
• Getting the right support at the right time
• Sharing your strengths and weaknesses with others
• Reducing anxiety
• Studying independently
• Finding your way around university
• Advocating for yourself
• Managing difficult situations

We have also published a Best Practice Guide on supporting students on the autism spectrum in Higher Education. This draws from our research, especially from talking to students and learning from their experiences. The Best Practice Guide is targeted at HEI Managers and Senior Academics, Lecturers, HE Disability Support Staff and Specialist Individuals and Organisations operating outside of HE.