University systems “stacked against” students with autism


A new Australian study has provided dramatic support for the idea that universities are often highly adverse environments for Autistic people.

Autistic university students have told researchers that university support systems are often inaccessible, their abilities and disabilities are often misunderstood and mistrusted, that the onus is on them to ensure they can access the support they need, and that getting through university is a matter of grit and determination.

Experts claim changes can be made to how learning is delivered and assessed which can benefit Autistic and non-autistic students alike.

How can we ensure higher education is no longer stacked against Autistic students?

Dr Diana Tan is a Macquarie University Research Fellow from the Macquarie School of Education. Her current research focuses on Autistic and Neurodivergent students’ experiences of higher education and seeks to identify and evaluate ways to improve their academic experiences and outcomes.

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“Across several studies done in Australia and worldwide, many Autistic university students have spoken about their experiences of discrimination when reflecting on their experiences at universities. In this most recent study, we took a deep dive into the contexts and circumstances in which Autistic people experienced discrimination at universities.

“We spoke to 21 Autistic people who were either current university students, graduates or non-graduates who discontinued their studies. During our interviews, almost all participants brought up experiences with discrimination without any prompts from the researchers,” she says.

“Almost all participants brought up experiences with discrimination without any prompts from the researchers.”

Stories of lived experience should lead to change

One of those participants was ‘Erica’ – an Autistic person who studied at an Australian university as an international student.

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When Erica was studying as an international student at an Australian university, she experienced some discrimination and told the researchers that her “worry and trauma from that one negative experience really affected my productivity”.

“I feel that I can relate to all of these themes identified in this study. I had one lecturer who refused to provide accommodation because the lecturer didn’t think I need those adjustments,” Erica said.

“After one semester with that lecturer, without any adjustments, I started experiencing autistic burnout which made me extremely sensitive to light and I couldn’t spend more than 10 or 15 minutes looking into a computer screen without taking a long break.”

When asked whether she needed to adjust her study load to cope with these challenges, Erica said, “I was afraid that it might cost a lot for my parents because the tuition fees increase every year. Studying for a longer period also means my parents will need to pay extra for my accommodation. So, I pushed myself to stick with the full-time study load; but I think I regret that decision.”

Fortunately, says Dr Tan, Erica – who now works as a writer who writes about disability access and inclusion – also received some positive support from other lecturers.

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“Some of them said they were always happy to support my study in any way they can, and I really appreciate their support.”

“But after that negative experience with the lecturer who refused my accommodation requests, I started being quite fearful and very anxious about requesting accommodations from other lecturers. What if they didn’t trust my educational access plan or if they thought I didn’t look like I was needing support?”

Four common themes repeated in the research

Dr Tan says their team of Autistic and non-autistic researchers identified four themes that stood out.

“First, like many other studies, we also found that Autistic students’ disabilities are often misunderstood and, at times, mistrusted. Many students, particularly those studying degrees in helping professions (e.g., education, psychology), have had their suitability for those careers questioned when they disclosed their being autistic,” she says.

“Second, the university systems and processes were found to be inaccessible. These issues were oftentimes exacerbated by the deeply seated unequal power dynamics between staff and Autistic students (e.g., some students have had their accommodation requests refused by their lecturers).

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“Third, the onus is almost always on Autistic students to know what support they need, to constantly ask for it, and sometimes needing to push for it. While self-advocacy is a skill many are proud of having, it comes with a cost – the emotional burden of asking for help is an experience shared by many Autistic interviewees.”

The fourth and final theme, says Dr Tan, describes “the grit many students needed to get through university as well as the profound sense of empathy our interviewees have for other Autistic and marginalised university students”.

“In light of these findings, we propose incorporating Universal Design for Learning, practices that support neurodiversity and trauma awareness, and adopting a participatory approach to enhance the design of university curricula, processes, and support services for Autistic students,” says Dr Tan.

“Everyone within our academic community, including students and staff, should personally commit to advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion in all facets of our work.”

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