Matthew Moffatt, who is autistic, struggled when he started at De Montfort University. “When I saw how busy my lecture theatre was, it was terrifying,” he says. “My sense of panic is through the roof and I’m not very good at controlling it. It just builds really quickly – I start shaking and want to leave.”
He hadn’t wanted to go to university because he didn’t think he would fit in, and hated the idea of presentations and busy lectures. “I didn’t like school, but college said I was good at maths and should do something I enjoy,” he says.
Moffatt is one of a growing number of autistic students, many of whom find UK universities ill-suited to their needs. According to the Office for National Statistics, the number of students with social and communication impairments has increased from 2,815 in 2010-11 to 10,595 in 2017-18. Some need extra time to process information, feel intense anxiety in social situations, and find noise and bright lights distressing.
Earlier this year, the Higher Education Commission launched an inquiry into the experience of disabled students, including autistic students, to look at why so many achieve below their potential. Although universities must comply with the Disability Act and the Autism Act, approaches vary, and experts say institutions are failing their autistic students.
“Far too many are struggling to get autism-specific support and end up dropping out. There’s too much inconsistency,” says Claire Burton, who leads on student support at the National Autistic Society. Autistic students are often socially excluded by their peers, she says, which makes settling in difficult.
Marc Fabri, a senior lecturer at Leeds Beckett Uni who researches autism and technology, adds that some of the support is “truly awful” and employment figures for autistic graduates are “dismal”.
Too often support in universities lacks backing from senior management, and instead relies on the efforts of senior managers with an autistic child or relative, or researchers who want to apply their work in their university. Equally, the expertise of disability support teams does not always filter through to other staff members.
In many ways, though, academia is the ideal environment for some autistic people. Individuals on the autistic spectrum are often referred to as neurodiverse and some of the positives include being able to focus intensely on a subject of interest. With the emphasis on independent learning and emphasis on specialist subjects, university settings can be a good match and students find their own communities through clubs and societies. “If anything, I want more challenging work, increased contact hours and lengthier assignments,” says Ewan Davies, a history and medieval studies student at Swansea University.
So why are universities getting it so wrong? “Schools need to speak to us more about the students coming here rather than dumping loads of documents in the post,” explains James Hitchins, head of student services at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, where around 15 of the 1250 students are autistic.
Different courses also require different support built in. George Stanbury, a recent languages graduate, says his oral exams were “the worst thing imaginable” because he knew that taking time to process information would see him marked down as lacking fluency. “It was so stressful and anxiety inducing,” he says. “I absolutely shut down.”
The support that is available tends to be shaped around academic needs, but autistic students tend to drop out because they feel socially isolated. The University of Huddersfield is aiming to address this through a weekly lunch club, which organisers say is a quiet environment for students to be themselves. Out of almost 23,000 students, 85 are declared autistic, and around a dozen attend each week. “Parents feel reassured and it’s a chance for us to pick up on any concerns,” says disability advisor Rachael Whittles, whose son has just started attending. “It’s something we’re all proud of.”
Swansea has an autistic social group called Eureka that meets weekly, while Nottingham University offers monthly board game and pizza nights. At De Montfort the autistic society get together every Thursday evening. “It’s not about going out on the town and getting messed up. We go to the pub, find a quiet table and sit down,” explains Moffat.
Targeted support that blends the academic with the pastoral can help, too. Over the past seven years, Gower College Swansea has worked with Swansea University to prevent students from dropping out by developing a specific transition programme. According to Heather Pickard-Hengstenberg, an autism spectrum condition practitioner at Swansea University, simple changes have included encouraging autistic students to visit and meet key staff as early as possible and providing orientation events, preferably with an overnight stay.
For Moffat, now in his second year of a forensic science degree, weekly mentor sessions helped him to adjust. “I needed someone to explain ‘you’re not going to die, you’re all right’,” he says. These days, he has methods to help him cope in lectures: he arrives early, finds a nice corner and listens to music on his headphones.
But mentoring isn’t a panacea. Melissa Chapple, a PhD student at Liverpool University, said her mentors were provided by an external company who regularly moved staff around. As soon as she would get used to one person they would be replaced with a stranger, even after she explained how difficult this was.
Autistic students can also benefit from new technologies, such as chatbots, since many prefer to communicate through instant messaging rather than on the phone or in person. Others struggle with processing the spoken language in lectures, so text captions and transcripts that cut out unnecessary words can help. Apps such as Brain in Hand also help with making decisions, coping with anxiety, and dealing with unexpected situations.
One of the biggest challenges that remains is securing funding for support. A recent study showed that only 40% of disabled students know that the Disabled Students’ Allowance exists before starting their course. Applying is a daunting task and some universities support students more than others. Many individuals do not have a formal diagnosis, while others choose not to apply because they do not perceive themselves “disabled enough” to warrant it.
Universities are learning how to accommodate the growing number of autistic learners, but there is still far to go. They stand to gain as much as the students themselves, says Ceri Low, learning support coordinator at Gower College Swansea. “[Autistic students] may not be the best at a social event but they could be the person who breaks ground in their subject. That is potentially the greatest reward for universities.”