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THU: Listening To Students With ASD In Higher Education (Gill Marshall)

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Gill Marshall
4 January 2018


  • What is the experience of students with ASD in higher education?

  • What are the challenges for students with autism in HE?

  • What kinds of learning work best for students with ASD?

  • What technologies can be used?

  • Is universal design the answer?

It should be recognised that young people with autism who are starting university have often come from a school system that produced the following statements:

“We are stuck in a system that wants the child to fail before help is offered.” (Parent)

“Autistic pupils are probably the SEN group I need the most guidance with and have received the least guidance on.” (A teacher)

“The school shattered my confidence – they had no understanding … they were unable to provide ‘reasonable adjustments’.” (Young person on autism spectrum)

(Quotes from NAS campaign email launching the #HeldBack campaign,

It is imperative that, on entering higher education after such a negative experience, students should feel that they no longer have to fight to achieve basic rights to study and work towards their personal goals.  Students on the autistic spectrum are relatively invisible in the disabled student community unless they disclose.  Disclosure is an issue for many who will have experienced years of bullying and spent much of their lives trying to ‘fit in’ with the norms and expectations of their society. Understanding of the condition is poor both in society generally and among their teachers and peers. Support in campus-based universities exists but is patchy and frequently depends on the student asking for help, thereby disclosing to their teachers and peers. This often happens only when the student has reached crisis point.

I will look at the challenges that face students with autism by exploring their social online spaces and listening to their stories. More and more of these blogs, videos and presentations are beginning to shine a light on ASD and give a voice to those who have previously been ashamed of who they are.  Some ‘Autistics’ are radicalized, taking control of their media, championing neurodiversity and demanding to be heard and respected for who they are rather than being labelled as disabled and needing support.

Many autistic people have unique skills and abilities that current educational practices, and society in general, are unable to even see, let alone unlock and develop to their true potential.

I will investigate current academic research that looks at how students with ASD are being supported, or not, and what recommendations are being made.

I will touch on the political and economic climate that determines how these students are currently treated and how social and technical solutions can encourage and achieve inclusion.  Policy and practice should be based on listening to students’ voices. ASD students know what kinds of learning and support might work for them, we just have to listen.

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