Health: Barriers to university for autistic students are being addressed in Leeds

Dr Marc Fabri from Leeds Beckett University with Emma Jones, Danielle Inwood, Kate Myers and Kate Dean.
Dr Marc Fabri from Leeds Beckett University with Emma Jones, Danielle Inwood, Kate Myers and Kate Dean.
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University can be a daunting place to go as a fresh-faced teenager used to the comforts of home.

There’s the heavy burden of cleaning and cooking to think about before the onus of socialising and studying rears its head. It’s a testing time for anyone but for students with autism it can be overwhelming.

A developmental disability that affects how a person communicates and how they relate to others as well as their understanding of the world around them, autism, in many cases, is manageable.

But through the stigma of diagnosis and a linked lack of support, many students on the spectrum struggle with the change of environment, quit and can suffer from issues like depression as a result.

Emma Jones, employment training coordinator at the National Autistic Society (NAS), explained that the hidden disability often only comes to light in higher education, meaning effective, tailored support can come too late.

She said: “If there isn’t the support in place, we so often find people start university and by Christmas are failing, then drop out and don’t reapply because they’ve had a bad experience and that can then affect employment opportunities. When things go wrong that can bring a whole load of wellbeing issues.”

People with autism often have heightened senses, meaning coping with bright lights, noises or situations can be torturous. In some cases it can result in sensory overload, where the environment leads to an emotional meltdown.

Nevertheless the number of young people with autism heading into higher education is increasing – doubling from 706 in 2008 to 2,130 in 2013. Leeds Beckett University has seen a 20 per cent year-on-year increase in students registered as autistic – it now has 107.

Leeds Beckett researcher Dr Marc Fabri is leading an ‘Autism&Uni’ project which involves five European institutions. The aim, learning from surveys and interviews, is to create a best practice guide and online toolkit for students.

“Typical challenges faced are false expectations of what higher education study is like, social isolation, anxiety and depression,” he said. “Receiving personalised support right from the start is critical.”

In a unique partnership, the NAS is working with Leeds Beckett to help its Disability Assessment Centre better recognise symptoms of autism so it can offer better support.

The centre, which helps students apply for disability grants and creates plans to help students adapt, is developing new software, photo maps of university and a team of trained ‘autism champions’ as aids.

The university’s example is a groundbreaking approach to helping a growing part of the student population, which could and should flourish.

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