Matthew Moffatt, an autistic student, faced significant challenges when he began studying at De Montfort University. He admits, “When I saw how chaotic my lecture theatre was, I was terrified. I struggle to control my sense of panic. The anxiety builds quickly, and I start shaking, wanting to flee.”
Moffatt had not initially planned to attend university, believing he would not fit in and dreading presentations and crowded lectures. Despite his reservations, he was encouraged by his tutors to pursue his interest in mathematics.
Moffatt represents one of a growing number of autistic students who find the UK university system is not ideally suited to their needs. The Office for National Statistics reveals that, between 2010 and 2011, 2,815 students with social and communication impairments enrolled, compared to 10,595 in 2017 and 2018. Many autistic students need extra time to process information, experience excessive anxiety in social situations, and find sensory issues, such as bright lights and noise, distressing.
Earlier this year, the Higher Education Commission initiated an investigation into the experience of disabled and autistic students. The investigation aims to determine why so many fail to reach their full potential. Although universities must comply with the Disability Act and the Autism Act, there is too much variety in approaches, according to experts who argue that universities are failing their autistic students.
Claire Burton, head of the division overseeing student support at the National Autistic Society, states that autistic students are socially isolated by their peers, complicating their integration into the university community. She also reports that inadequate autism-specific support forces students to abandon their studies prematurely, citing inconsistency as a significant issue.
Marc Fabri, a senior lecturer focusing on autism and technology at Leeds Beckett University, agrees, stating that some of the support, employment prospects for autistic graduates, and access to senior managers to implement changes are “dismal.” He argues that the disability support departments’ expertise does not reliably disseminate to other university staff.
Despite the challenges faced by autistic students, the university environment presents ideal opportunities for some, such as their ability to develop intense skills in their chosen areas of interest and find their place in clubs and societies. Ewan Davies, a history and medieval studies student at Swansea University, states, “If anything, I want more challenging work, increased contact hours, and lengthier assignments.”
So why are universities failing to accommodate autistic students adequately? According to James Hitchins, head of student services at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, schools must reconsider their approach to students who plan to enrol at university, notably through more effective communication rather than merely sending documents to the university. Furthermore, developing specific support for different courses and ensuring that such support is effectively integrated with the university’s educational practice would improve the experience of all autistic students.
Autistic individuals can reap significant benefits from novel technologies such as chatbots, enabling them to communicate more effectively via instant messaging, a preferred method over phone or in-person conversations. Some of these individuals may struggle to process speech accurately during lectures, necessitating the use of video captions and concise transcripts devoid of extraneous verbiage. Brain in Hand apps are also equipped to help students make conscious decisions, handle anxiety, and manage unexpected situations. Despite the strides made towards accommodating autistic individuals, securing funding for support remains an ongoing challenge. A recent study indicated that only 40% of disabled students were aware of the availability of the Disabled Students’ Allowance prior to commencing their coursework. The application process can also be arduous, and certain universities offer more extensive support than others. Moreover, there are individuals who do not possess formal diagnosis, while others forego applying altogether, as they do not consider themselves "disabled enough." Although institutions are endeavoring to better serve the escalating number of autistic learners, there is still a long way to go. That being said, universities stand to gain as much as students themselves, as highlighted by Ceri Low, Learning Support Coordinator at Gower College Swansea. "Autistic individuals may not excel at social events, but they can be groundbreakers in their respective fields. This notion is undoubtedly the greatest incentive for universities."