The case to better support autistic students

As retention rates for autistic students are lower than any other disability group, Helen Guyatt explains what could be done to help - and what incentives there are for institutions to do so.

Helen is head of research, evaluation and insight at Brain in Hand.

Retention rates for autistic students at university are – frankly – not good.

An investigation by the North East Autism Society found that “autistic students are less likely to complete their degree than any other disability group.” Of those who started university in 2019, 36 per cent did not graduate in 2022 – that’s compared with an overall student rate of 29 per cent.

The percentage of the student population who are autistic also continues to rise, with recent estimates of close to 7 per cent – up from the 2.4 per cent recorded in 2008.

To put this into perspective, if we take the University of Manchester as an example, which has around 40,000 enrolled students (according to the national data), out of 2,800 autistic students in Manchester, approximately 1,008 will not graduate.

These numbers represent a tragic inequality in outcomes for an already disadvantaged group.

Income incentive

Such a haemorrhage could also mean that there are between £9.3 million to £18.7 million worth of fees lost for the university. These figures spotlight a substantial monetary gap for higher education institutions (HEIs) to deliver the quality education and support needed to improve student outcomes.

So, for HEIs, increasing retention through support services has to be high on the agenda. And looking at it this way – and altruism aside – supporting autistic students could be seen as a return on investment.

Financial support

For the upcoming 23/24 academic year, students are entitled to up to £26,291 a year in support via the Disabled Students’ Allowance. For neurodiverse students, this includes assistance with travel, digital apps, and specialist mentoring. This funding is joined by on-site and wider university support, such as internal counselling, transition programmes, clubs, and learning buddies.

But despite these programmes, student engagement can still falter. Many students do not know funding exists before starting their course or know to ask for support. Without these services readily accessible, it’s easy to see how and why many students who need this support fall by the wayside.

Universities need to be encouraged to market their support services. UCAS discovered that 56 per cent of disabled students research an institution’s support for disabled students before applying. If they shouted from the rooftops, not only would the ROI be so much higher, but more students would have a better uni experience.

In fact, the Disabled Student Commitment – released this year – has called on HEIs and related organisations to ensure comprehensive information on support for disabled students and that it is accessible to all, not just those who have shared they are disabled.

Several universities do offer support to all students without the need to provide evidence of needs or pass any eligibility requirements. Some may argue that supporting everyone will add a further burden on resources. But we have to challenge the presumption that simply because people are offered something, they will take it up.

And even if such financial support were to be consistently accessible and accessed, there may be other issues which cause students to discontinue.

No isolated issues

The barriers to social integration for disabled students may also be causing issues in retention.

The University Mental Health Charter highlighted in 2019 that “research has clearly demonstrated that belonging and social integration are important not just for student well-being, but also for academic achievement and persistence to graduation”.

Findings earlier that year also illustrated that disabled students were twice as likely to be lonely on a daily basis – which increases the likelihood of experiencing greater anxiety.

And last summer, a survey by Brain in Hand revealed that 76 per cent of autistic people identified managing overwhelm and/or emotions as areas in which they most needed help.

Current support within universities is mainly centred on aiding learning. And while that is important, we also need tools for social inclusion, focusing on a student’s emotional and human needs. With this approach, HEIs can form a chain of beneficial outcomes: support tools for learning and social inclusion, meaning a better student experience (both academically and socially), meaning greater retention.

Social and wellbeing support

Digital support tools via apps and human support can create access for all students, regardless of funding. They offer real-time support for day-to-day anxiety, overwhelm, planning and much more. Crucially, students can self-manage where they can, allowing for a more efficient use of staff time and resources. And a recent evaluation has found that with this digital support, 81 per cent feel more able to cope with day-to-day stressors and more confident in managing day-to-day activities such as their studies.

Of course, this is fantastic for students. And remembering ROI: providing a student with a learning buddy and counselling psychologist for a term could cost the university around £3,000 but potentially retain £18,500 from two years of fees.

Such support’s wellbeing and financial benefits pull in favour of cultivating an environment that mutually benefits the university and its students.

Taking the journey onward

Early and equitable support for autistic students means access to funding and facilitation support for social integration and opportunities.

But how do we measure the ROI of such tools and incentivise institutions to invest in them? And what is considered a reasonable financial investment? While my arguments outline the financial and social issues that autistic students face, we need more evidence from universities on the success of interventions.

And to truly address the issue, we must eventually probe decision-makers, lobby governmental departments, and those collaborating with HEIs. But first we need answers to all the questions they will ask: What’s the problem? How do we measure and convey the scale of the issue? Why are many students not getting the proper support? And we need universities to collect and provide us with this evidence.

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