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Supporting neurodiverse students through the transition to university

Many institutions run enhanced onboarding for neurodiverse students. Edward Mills reflects on his own autism diagnosis and how he uses it to help his students
This article is more than 1 year old

Edward Mills is a lecturer in medieval studies at the University of Exeter

As a lecturer and personal tutor, I am interested – as we all should be – in making university as accessible and enjoyable as possible for neurodivergent students.

I work particularly closely with autistic students.

I should probably admit, at this point, that I have a horse in this proverbial race. Two horses, in fact. Not only am I autistic myself, but I was diagnosed late – specifically, on the day before I graduated from my undergraduate degree.

So, my own student experience was shaped by autism, even if I didn’t know it at the time.

When I work with autistic students, as a personal tutor or in seminars, it’s difficult not to identify with the thousands of autistic students who start university each year – whether they’re diagnosed or undiagnosed – as “my people” struggling with the same issues that I did, whether in the social sphere, an academic environment, or – frequently – both.

This isn’t to say that nothing is being done. An enormous amount of work has gone into supporting students and staff like me over the past few years. There are projects on both the international level – such those with the Autism&Uni network- and the regional, from groups such as ReASoN in the South West to the myriad institution-wide collectives that exist at individual universities up and down the country – including Glasgow and Oxford.

Transition Days

More recently, I’ve undertaken some of this work myself – as my identities as an autistic person and a lecturer have collided in a glorious technicolour explosion of enthusiasm. With colleagues in Wellbeing Services and disability support, I contribute to the Enhanced Induction Programme at the University of Exeter.

One of the defining features of this programme is an enhanced Transition Day, in August, for students on the autistic spectrum.

It aims to bridge the two worlds of school and university life, introducing new students to the campus, outlining sources of support, and allowing frequently-concerned parents to raise such concerns.

My job as a lecturer and personal tutor is to lead on the day’s academic side, where I cover several broad topics, which may seem arbitrary but address many of the worries that incoming students on the spectrum experience.

University, school, and the Muppets

I respond in detail to the question, “how is university different from school?” This is particularly pertinent for humanities students (despite the oft-wheeled-out and false stereotype that autism is the preserve of scientists). When a student’s timetable goes from being structured to suddenly being full of apparent gaps, guidance in managing one’s time and providing one’s own structure is essential.

I also outline clearly the available sources of support, how to contact them, and when to use them, from personal tutors to module convenors, careers consultants, and seminar tutors.

For this task, I draw on the Muppets for illustrative information (I shall leave it to your judgement as to whether my allocation of individual Muppets to specific job titles reflects your experience).

Why “just” neurodivergent students?

Upon considering these focus areas, you may wonder whether any of this is particularly specific to autistic students. Wouldn’t all students would benefit from more guidance on time management, finding support when needed, and navigating the social minefield of email etiquette?

Well … yes and no. It’s undoubtedly true that these challenges aren’t exclusive to autistic students.

Still, autistic students experience them qualitatively differently for several reasons, including previous experiences of being othered by educational staff or students and anxieties surrounding disclosure itself. As Pete Wharmby succinctly puts it in his new book, published just in time for inclusion in this post “most new students are vulnerable at this time, but autistic students must be more so.”

Defaults, not exceptions

But this does bring me back to the second of the two proverbial horses I mentioned at this piece’s start: my late diagnosis.

My late diagnosis means that none of the accommodations I’ve outlined above — transition days, networks, and so on — were available to me during my undergraduate degree. I can only imagine how helpful they might have been. There is a high probability that other undiagnosed students will continue to miss out on the support that they need.

The reasons for underdiagnosis vary widely, and the diagnosis gap in the UK affects women particularly severely. A variety of other factors also work to limit access to support, and while insights from the US suggest that the gap may be closing, it’s unlikely that this situation will change overnight.

From an academic perspective, as vague as it may sound, the only solution to this is compassion and kindness and working to build much of what is currently identified as “accommodations” or “special treatment” into good practice by default.

One way to achieve this is to be explicit about the hidden curriculum with all students.

Within existing frameworks for teaching and learning, practices such as Universal Design For Learning need to be built in as the default, not the exception. If we want to “celebrate neurodiversity” – as the week just gone encourages us to – then adjustments shouldn’t be deviations from a putative norm: they need to be part of what is normal.

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