How Do Universities Support Autistic Students? | TOTUM
Holly BarrowMarch 31st

Ambitious About Autism describes autism as a 'lifelong neurological difference in brain development that affects the way a person communicates and how they experience the world around them'.

As a spectrum condition, it affects people in different ways, however it typically impacts areas such as communication and interaction, social understanding, interests and information processing and sensory processing. It is estimated that around 700,000 people in the UK are on the autism spectrum - which equates to more than 1 in 100 - however, until recently, fewer than one in four young autistic people stayed in education beyond school.


Only in recent years has this begun to change, with universities seeing a 200% increase in the number of students on the autism spectrum in the past five years.

This is a positive step in the right direction, with campaigners working hard to secure better educational options for all young autistic people aged 16–25.

But despite improvements in recent years, less than 40% of autistic students in the UK complete their university education - meaning they are 10 times more likely to drop out.

With the right support autistic students can thrive in further and higher education, which is why it's so vital that universities across the country have the best possible systems in place to provide that support and planning.

How do universities support autistic people?

University disability services are crucial in that they provide autistic students with the tools they need to excel.

This can include implementing simple but necessary adjustments, helping students to transition to university life, providing 1:1 guidance, and helping with everything from academic work management to socialising.

In 2020, a University of Bristol student wrote a blog post on what it's like to be an autistic student at Bristol, discussing how it has affected them and what has helped.

They wrote: "The most important piece of practical help I have received at uni is around exams. The work of the university disability services, and the support of my school means that I can now be assessed through coursework rather than exams. I find coursework much less anxiety provoking, and it allows me to achieve in ways exams never could.


"Another thing that has helped has been to have content broken down into smaller sections. This is particularly valuable when I am feeling overwhelmed. My personal tutor, wellbeing advisor, and a couple of other lecturers have really helped me in this regard." "Finally, having advance notice about anything out of the ordinary is incredibly helpful. By allowing me the extra time to process things before they happen, I am able to cope with them a lot better. This can range from things such as having a different lecturer, a different location, or what the content of the lecture will be."

In 2017, another then-student at University of the Arts London, Holly McKenna Smith, also wrote a piece for The Uni Guide on how her university had helped her, writing: "If I have an issue, I can always talk to someone within the university disability team. "My disability officer gave me access to an app called Brain in Hand, which reminds me to take my medication, get to class on time and plan out my daily life. I also receive help from a Freedomlink tutor who helps me to plan and structure any writing that I may have during my course at university.


"I have been given a dictaphone that allows me to record all my lectures, which I can convert into a transcript and then refer back to easily. Specialist programmes on my computer help with this, such as Dragon Read & Write Gold."

Such support can be invaluable for students on the autism spectrum.

How to apply for university and receive appropriate support

Carol Povey, the Director of the Centre for Autism, also penned a piece for The Uni Guide, particularly focusing on how to apply for university as an autistic student to ensure you receive the support and assistance you need.

When it comes to selecting a course, Povey advises researching the practicalities in terms of your individual abilities by asking questions such as 'does the course include group work?', and 'will you be expected to deliver presentations?'.

While factors such as group work, presenting and frequent seminars certainly won't affect every autistic person, they can definitely bring additional challenges for some.

Povey then suggests that university choice is extremely important and brings a number of considerations including whether you would prefer to live at home or move away for uni, and how your chosen university's accommodation and lecture rooms can cater to your needs.

Attending open days is a great way to get a feel for the environment and to introduce yourself to the uni's SEN lead or student services.


When it comes to the actual process of applying, it's a good idea to reach out to the university's support services to discover how they can help you to overcome any potential hurdles or challenges.   Povey explains that this could include things like 'recording lectures, providing extra time for you in exams, individual note-taking, mentoring or study skills support with a specialist tutor.' Finally, it is important to note that you can apply for a Disabled Students' Allowance (DSA) when applying for student finance online, which can be invaluable.

This can be a lengthy process, with UCAS advising people to apply six to nine months prior to their course beginning. However, once confirmed, you can arrange an appointment with a DSA Needs Assessor who can help to work on a support plan for you, which can involve everything from help with travel to IT support.

World Autism Awareness Day 2022

Unfortunately, while there is a wide range of support out there for autistic students, we know there is still a long way to go.

From long waits and delays in accessing support to some disabled students facing discrimination, not all autistic students are provided the assistance, respect and dignity they deserve and are entitled to.

This World Autism Awareness Day's theme is 'inclusive education', which feels especially pertinent given the impact of Covid-19 on inequalities in education.

The UN writes: "The disruption in learning caused by the pandemic has reversed years of progress and has exacerbated inequalities in education.

"Many students with autism have been especially hard hit and studies show that they have been disproportionately affected by disruptions to routines, as well as services and supports that they rely on."

For this reason, it's more important than ever that autistic students are given the right support so that they can thrive along with their peers.

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