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You are reading: Supporting Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder in Higher Education

Written by Dr Ceridwen Owen, Ms Damhnat McCann, Dr Christopher Rayner, Ms Carol Devereaux, Ms Fiona Sheehan & Dr Lyndsay Quarmby (University of Tasmania)

This project targets improvements in support for higher education students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in light of the substantive existing and anticipated future growth of this population, and the failure of existing supports to meet their complex and unique needs.

Uniquely, the research extends existing research in disability supports and pedagogical initiatives to explore the design of the built environment as part of a holistic framework of support for students with ASD in higher education.

The research draws on a review of published literature combined with a cross-sectional analysis of existing supports in Australian institutions and an in-depth analysis of the experience of students at one Australian university to identify key opportunities and gaps in the provision of support for students with ASD.

The key outcomes and recommendations of the research relate to the provision of holistic disability supports, pedagogical innovations, inclusive design solutions and the potential under the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) for funding to support students with ASD in higher education. These are outlined below.

Holistic Disability Supports

  • The research supports the need to develop comprehensive supports for students with ASD that extend beyond academic skills to include social skills, self-management, advocacy and personal development.
  • Peer-mentoring and transition support appear to be effective forms of support but need to be integrated within institutional support structures and maintained across the whole academic pathway. Further research is needed to compare existing programs within Australian higher education institutions and evaluate their success.
  • A key gap is the level of awareness of ASD by staff and students. There is a need to develop ASD specific-information, resources and programs to build awareness of the issues experienced by people with ASD, develop skills in supporting students with ASD as staff and peers, and to foster a greater culture of inclusion.

Pedagogical Innovations

  • The learning styles and needs of students with ASD are diverse – one size does not fit all. Higher education students with ASD should be provided with multiple options for accessing content and engaging in learning experiences. The Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles may provide a useful pedagogical framework to support students with ASD and the broader population of students.
  • Teaching staff have a critical role to play in the wellbeing, academic attainment and retention of students with ASD. Greater awareness of, and skills in, working with students with ASD for teaching staff is vital.
  • Higher education students with ASD should be supported in exercising agency and self-management of their learning. Opportunities include enabling choices in accessing content, supporting individual preferences in location within learning spaces, creating opportunities for structured (rather than forced) social interaction, and optimism regarding each student’s potential, emphasising strengths rather than weaknesses.

Inclusive Design Solutions

  • The built environment is a substantial factor in the experience of students with ASD and affects academic performance, social inclusion and health and wellbeing more broadly. Key issues include sensory overload from acoustic and visual stimuli, difficulties navigating campus and online environments, anxiety over forced social interaction and social isolation caused by self-exclusion from campus facilities such as cafeterias and the library.
  • Recent developments in the design of new learning spaces as dynamic, interactive, acoustically live and visually stimulating environments, mean that opportunities for retreat to more sensory calming spaces are critical. These need to be easily accessible and adjacent to, or even within, learning spaces. Consideration should be given to the provision of a range of smaller scale spaces distributed across campus to improve choice and accessibility. The design of larger learning spaces, such as lecture theatres, also needs to consider opportunities for discrete escape.
  • Consideration needs to be given to the design of social amenities that enable students with ASD to participate in social life on campus, whether actively in smaller social settings, or passively by observing campus activities while being ‘hidden from view’.
  • Legibility needs to be considered in the design of campus and learning environments so that students with ASD can more readily ‘make sense’ of the environment. The provision of simple and consistent visual cues can facilitate orientation and navigation in both the physical and online environment.
  • Many of the design needs can be met through minor modifications and through the identification and protection of existing spaces that address the needs of students with ASD. However, there are also clear benefits in the provision of a dedicated facility on campus as a ‘safe space’, particularly to meet the needs of students with medical conditions.
  • It is important that issues relating to ASD are embedded in design guidelines to expand inclusive design and accessibility beyond the normative understanding of mobility and physical impairment.

National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS)

  • The type and scope of support available to students with ASD in higher education under the NDIS is unclear. Potential opportunities include the provision of expanded peer mentoring support to address the range of academic, communication, independent living, self-management and advocacy skills required by students with ASD. Opportunities also exist to expand transition support to encompass the range of ‘micro-transitions’ experienced across the entire academic pathway.
  • Further research needs to be undertaken to clarify the type of support available to higher education students with ASD under the NDIS. This will require research with a broader range of participants including individuals with ASD who have failed to access higher education despite academic competency and interest, and individuals who have entered higher education, but failed to graduate.

Supporting Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder in Higher Education (5Mb)

Owen, C., McCann, D., Rayner, C., Devereaux, C., Sheehan, F. & Quarmby, L. (2016) Supporting Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder in Higher Education. Report submitted to the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE), Curtin University: Perth.
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