Greater numbers of young adults on the autism spectrum will gain access to higher education. Educational opportunities for people with autism spectrum disorders will improve across Europe.

Autism&Uni is a research initiative that works with young people on the autism spectrum to help them navigate the transition from school into Higher Education (HE). Autistic people are at the centre of the project and involved at every stage. By applying such a human-centred approach, we ensure that the project outcomes are directly influenced by, and designed specifically for the students we are working for.

Autism&Uni was funded by the European Union under the Lifelong Learning Programme, between 2013 and 2016. Since 2016, Leeds Beckett University continues the project in the United Kingdom, under the leadership of Dr Marc Fabri. For continuing initiatives in other countries please contact the relevant partner.

What are the challenges?

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. Findings from our research suggest that typical challenges encountered relate to:

The social and physical environment

  • difficulty picking up unwritten social rules when interacting with tutors and fellow students
  • difficulty tolerating background noise, lighting, crowding or other sensory aspects of the university environment
  • handling the social isolation that often comes with living in a new environment

Lack of appropriate support

  • lack of access to appropriate support right from the start
  • a focus on the ‘deficits’ of autism, rather than the strengths students can bring
  • lack of consistency in reasonable adjustments, autism-specific services and personal support

Unrealistic expectations by the student

  • what university study is really like
  • content of study subject or course
  • performing at the same high standard as in secondary education
  • fellow students’ interests and dedication

Challenges concerning assessment (even when mastering the subject matter)

  • difficulty interpreting ambiguous and open assignment briefs correctly
  • lack of understanding why something needs to be done
  • difficulty planning studies and revision
  • uncertainty how much time to spend on a given task

Transitioning to adult life requiring more effort than it would for the average student

  • moving away from home for the first time
  • time management and establishing routines
  • 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.

How have we addressed these?

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 Online Toolkit that gives students strategies for overcoming abovementioned challenges by covering the following topics:

  • Myths and Facts about studying at university
  • Choosing your study topic
  • Getting the right support at the right time
  • Sharing your strengths and weaknesses with others
  • Reducing anxiety
  • Studying independently, e.g. interactions in lectures, tutorials or group work
  • Finding your way around university
  • Advocating for yourself
  • Managing difficult situations

We have also published a set of Best Practice Guides on supporting students on the autism spectrum in Higher Education. The guides draw from our research, especially from talking to students and learning from their experiences. The Best Practice Guides are aimed at HE Managers and Senior Academics, Lecturers, HE Disability Support Staff and Specialist Individuals and Organisations operating outside of HE.