Autism Friendly University

Autism is a developmental condition that affects how one understands, relates to, and communicates with, other people, and the world. Common traits among autistic people include difficulty with communication and socialising, repetitive behaviours and heightened sensory perception. These characteristics make it more difficult to meet the everyday academic and social challenges of university life.

Over the past 20 years, children with autism have increasingly entered mainstream schools, and this ‘peak cohort’ is now moving on to third level. At DCU, we realised that universities needed to be better prepared to meet their needs. In 2016, we collaborated with AsIAm, Ireland’s national autism charity, on research to identify barriers faced by autistic students in higher education and to recommend solutions.

Through online surveys, focus groups and a sensory audit, the research team discovered that ordinary university situations caused increased stress or anxiety for autistic students, such as attending lectures, group work or navigating the library and filtering information available. Heightened sensory awareness of noise, smells, lighting and bustling environments was also found to exacerbate the isolation of autistic students who struggled in canteens and at social events.

The research established 8 Principles for an Autism Friendly University, which DCU has committed to embed through a 43-point action plan to provide a supportive university experience and to prepare students to transition into employment beyond university. Its implementation is now at an advanced stage.

8 principles of an autism friendly university:
  • Encourage and enable students with Autism to transition into and participate in university programmes.
  • Support and build capacity to equip students with Autism to meet the academic challenges of everyday university life.
  • Support and build capacity to equip students with Autism to meet the social challenges of everyday university life.
  • Seek to establish an Autism friendly operational environment.
  • Seek to combat the stigma around Autism and recognise the diverse experiences of those with the condition.
  • Develop understanding and relevant knowledge and skills within the University community.
  • Establish channels so that students with Autism can have a voice in various aspects of University life.
  • Increase employability of graduates with Autism, through a range of initiatives that will help develop their soft skills to support their transition beyond University.
Ireland’s first Autism Friendly University

Since DCU’s designation as Ireland’s first Autism Friendly University in 2018, we have made significant progress on our action plan to create a university experience where autistic students are understood, accepted and supported to reach their personal potential. Highlights from this work have included:

  • Appointment of an Autism Friendly University Coordinator and the delivery of autism awareness training programmes for staff.
  • Designation of quiet areas and the installation of a sensory pod on each academic campus.
  • Launching an Autism&Uni online toolkit to support autistic students during the transition into university.
  • The establishment of a Neurodivergent Society which featured in the RTE documentary, My Big Idea: Changing Ireland.
  • Provision of interview skills training and internships for autistic students in collaboration with Specialisterne Ireland.
  • The development of the world’s first Autism Friendly University Design Guide working with Dr Magda Mostafa, an internationally recognised leader in autism-friendly design. The guide provides principles to ensure buildings and facilities are autism friendly and it will be publicly shared to support other higher education institutions to implement autism friendly design.

We have also seen positive results since the initiative’s launch, with the number of students disclosing their autism diagnosis more than doubling from 35 students in the 2016/17 academic year to 81 in 2020/21.

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