Posted on 07th November 2020
Durham University launches the Autism&Uni toolkit
Rebecca Horsfall, Disability Adviser at Durham University, talks about adopting the toolkit and how it became a bit of a life-saver during the first Covid-19 lockdown.
Durham University invested in a new role of autism-specialist Disability Adviser in November 2019, in recognition that many autistic students required a higher level of support while at university. I share this post with my colleague Susan Ashton, and each of us have worked with autistic adults for over ten years in a local authority setting. This post was brand new and Susan and I have the opportunity to shape service development and delivery for autistic students across the university.
Within my first supervision, my manager highlighted a need for some form of ‘checklist’ to support an effective transition for autistic students coming to university. For example, prompting students to ensure they register with a GP in Durham, to apply for DSA, to contact Disability Support and think about how they would manage practical elements of life if living away from home for the first time. This approach was to reduce the risk of autistic students dropping out of university when subsequently being overwhelmed by the transition.
Susan and I considered various approaches, for example, creating a resource ourselves and producing a guide to university life in order to aid transition. However, when considering the wider strategic context of our role and that we were also seeing students on a daily basis, finding the time to create such a resource felt ominous.
We then came across the Autism&Uni Toolkit created by Marc Fabri at Leeds Beckett University, in collaboration with several project partners in other European countries (see Autism&Uni partners). We immediately felt that this was what we wanted to adopt – a collaborative online resource which can be adapted and updated when needed. We saw the potential in its use not only for incoming students but also current students who needed a resource for signposting and advice. We linked up with Marc in February 2020 and his help in setting up our Autism&Uni Toolkit has been invaluable.
At the time, we never realised how much we would rely on this tool later in the year.
Durham University holds an ASC Induction Program to enable autistic students to arrive a little earlier on campus while it is quieter. The aim of the induction is to support the student to settle into their accommodation and meet with key services ahead of the main induction week. In 2020 this on–campus induction was not possible due to Covid-19. Within this context, our Autism&Uni Toolkit became a core and vital feature of our induction offer.
The traditional ASC Induction involved students arriving 2-3 days ahead the main body of students. As this wasn’t possible, Susan and I planned a 4 week ‘virtual induction’, sending out a weekly email with core information and guidance. Within these emails we directed our incoming students to key articles within the Toolkit, asking the students to reflect on what actions they needed to take to prepare for university. Due to Covid-19 many of our prospective students had not managed to visit Durham ahead of the start of term, so the “Locations” section of the toolkit which helps with finding one’s way around campus was particularly important.
This approach, in the absence of a face-to-face induction, was well received and we are considering incorporating a virtual element alongside any future on-campus induction. With the packed itinerary of previous on-campus inductions, we have reflected that this may be very intense for some autistic students. Adopting a virtual element in the future may help the student prepare and plan for university at a pace that is more suited to them. Moving forward, our Autism&Uni Toolkit will be a core element of this approach!
We continue to share our Autism&Uni Toolkit with our students and key professionals in support services. The addition of the article ‘Studying remotely at times of social distancing’ by Harriet Cannon and Nicola Martin has been a particularly welcome addition (read the recent blog post about it). Our students are benefitting from this already.
We express thanks to Marc and all contributors to the Autism&Uni Toolkit project as we know it is making a difference in our university.
Rebecca Horsfall is Disability Advisor in the Disability Support Team at Durham University.