'Not all autistic students require or want a mentor, but all autistic students should be offered one and have this offer open to access should the need arise,' says autistic author Dr Susy Ridout. Learning Disability Today caught up with the woman behind Autism and Mental Wellbeing in Higher Education to share a flavour of how best to support students - and how students can support themselves ahead of a transition that can be daunting for anyone. 

Learning Disability Today: What are the main challenges autistic people face when going off to college or university?

Susy Ridout: The transition from a previous learning environment to HE is huge as this type of learning is much more independent. Furthermore, the demands of adapting to new routines, timetables, travel, living and environments can be exhausting and need allocated time at the end (or during) each day to process experiences.

"Proactive support enable autistic students, and many others, to compete equitably with other candidates for places on HE courses."

Many learning environments (not solely those relating to HE) are highly unsuitable for autistic people and are designed to accommodate the needs of non-autistic individuals. Therefore, non-autism friendly environments, for example those comprising poor lighting, badly laid out lecture rooms or pungent cleaning fluids may result in sensory or social overload.

Group work is endemic to most courses and is often introduced with little thought as to how to link students. Those who find it difficult for whatever reason to fit in or voice their opinions can find this experience frustrating and alienating. Being that a strength of many autistic students is that they are extremely focused, this can result in them doing the majority of the group work as they pay attention to detail and their set learning goals.

Communication preferences within HE are less accommodating of the needs of autistic individuals. Presentation of lectures and course materials without hardcopy handouts for some individuals, or the circulation of these on the University Learning Management System (e.g. Canvas or Moodle) prior to lectures, leave little time for the processing of information and preparation of questions and this area needs to be improved.

Together with not being given time to voice autistic experiences using their own terminology, these aspects contribute to high levels of ongoing anxiety prior to and throughout the course, and some thoughtful and minor adaptations, which would suit many other students, could address these points and contribute to an improved learning and teaching environment.

Learning Disability Today: What support do autistic people need that other students may not?

Susy Ridout: Due to the different learning environment, many students find time management a challenge. This is particularly the case with autistic students who may find it difficult to prioritise and focus, or to switch attention, and so support structuring this is necessary to avoid the build-up of anxiety and to remain on target. This is linked to the adopting of a good work-relaxation life balance to allow individuals to manage high levels of stress often experienced despite considerable academic success.

Understanding coursework and its demands are essential in supporting students to settle into university life, and this is critical when assessing with a student whether their course choice is the best for them or even their motive for choosing university in the first place. Mentors are in a good position to pick up on this due to the time spent with individual students, and the book provides options that can be discussed with students.

Building friends/friendship groups can be tricky for autistic individuals since beginning, continuing or ending a conversation can be challenging. Helping students access an interest group is invaluable as it provides an immediate point of similarity with which to engage, and this can remove the stress of how to communicate and shift the focus to the content of the communication itself.

Dealing with issues of low self-esteem and confidence are often related to issues such as bullying, needs not being understood or time to process information. These can often arise due to a lack to friendships or developing unsuccessful peer relationships on the course or a poor working relationship with a tutor due to them misunderstanding support requirements. Mentors can work with a student to ease the pathway, and engaging the support of the tutor is a key element in this as they can also familiarise themselves with the communication preferences of individual students and work to the strengths of the student concerned.

Learning Disability Today: How important is it for autistic students to have a mentor and how can they find one?

Susy Ridout: Not all autistic students require or want a mentor, but I do believe that all autistic students should be offered one and have this offer open to access should the need arise.

In disclosing that they are autistic in their application to a university, the student will be flagged up to a disability team. Some support may be provided directly by the University, and some through an application for additional funding through Disability Support Allowance.

Given the fluctuating anxiety levels experienced by many autistics, it seems pragmatic to have a mentor in place for students to discuss issues relating to their course or autism. These might include barriers to learning, feeling overwhelmed and sensory and social overload. A mentor’s role is to develop a good working relationship with each student and to support their well-being due to the changing course demands and deadlines (exams, group work and assignments) and personal and living circumstances that may impact on these. The frequency of these meetings is negotiated between the Disability Support Worker, student and mentor and can be adjusted accordingly.

Learning Disability Today: There have been several articles making the news recently about autistic people attempting to mask their condition. What are the implications of this?

Susy Ridout: Masking autism occurs for a variety of reasons, and my view is that the wider reason for this is due to a poor societal and individual response to a different cognitive style among some individuals. This can cause many autistic individuals to develop coping strategies that, by definition, are entirely exhausting. Amongst other things, this often leads to many autistic people feeling uncomfortable about disclosing autism, assuming that they are aware that they are autistic in the first place.

Ultimately, masking, and particularly a decision not to disclose (which may not be the same thing) means that employers, learning environments and service providers more widely are not obliged to conform to the Anticipatory Duty set out by the Equality Act 2010. This may result in environments that are not autism-friendly and that will continue to exist unchallenged. On an individual level, autistic students who mask autism report a range of experiences from a difficulty establishing friendships to a difficulty in understanding and structuring course work and managing time. If staff have not been autism trained, or are unaware of the student’s support requirements, misunderstandings can serve only to exacerbate a student’s anxiety.

Learning Disability Today: Is access to higher education accessible to all, in your experience, or are there barriers that could be removed to make it more accessible?

Susy Ridout: The HE environment is profoundly disabling for many students, and particularly those experiencing cognitive differences regarding the processing of information, sensory sensitivities and communication preferences that are simply not addressed. Whilst the introduction of technology is providing options for access to course materials, resources and engagement with exams, exams themselves can work against the learning style and strengths of an individual. A more continual and relaxed form of assessment would remove high levels of anxiety and encourage the autistic individual to work to their strengths.

Learning Disability Today: Does there need to be more flexibility on entry requirements requiring grade C in Maths and English?

Susy Ridout: For those courses where there is a necessary element of writing/mathematics, it is critical that support is timely. The question is not one of lowering standards for autistic students. Many autistic individuals are neurodivergent and experience other challenges such as dyslexia, Irlens syndrome or dyscalculia, which impact on the ability to read, write and do maths. For this reason, proactive support needs to be established within primary, secondary and tertiary education settings, paying attention to the anticipatory duty detailed in the Equality Act 2010. This would enable autistic students, and many others, to compete equitably with other candidates for places on HE courses. However, I think universities do need to be more flexible in their application and assessment approaches due to the manual focus that appeals to individuals with these strengths. This would be more inclusive of individuals, many of whom are autistic/neurodivergent, and the removal of this stress from these courses would lower anxiety and facilitate improved engagement and attainment.

Learning Disability Today: University involves adapting to new circumstances and the transition can be exhausting. How can this be prepared for and how can students look after their emotional health?

Familiarising students with the university environment prior to the beginning of term is a key element in settling people and helping them make friendships. Introduction to quiet spaces is also essential in assisting students to avoid sensory and social overload and manage well-being and being provided with this information and resource as opposed to having to anticipate the availability of one is a more welcoming approach.

Working as a mentor to establish some key goals, which would include course-related goals and ones related to well-being, is important in helping individuals feel confident about managing their emotional health and recognising triggers. Since many students come from an environment where terminology to describe and support them has been/is defamatory, it is important to support students in using the language they feel comfortable with to describe themselves, their experiences and their various identities. They are not, after all, only autistic and establishing the array of elements that make them a unique individual is key to them establishing a more positive emotional well-being.

Learning Disability Today: Who is your book aimed at and what were your motivations for writing it?

Susy Ridout: Starting from my experience that the majority of students do not know what to expect from mentoring, and that there is little cohesive guidance for mentors to follow throughout the course of a busy year, the book is written for a wide-reaching audience. It aims to develop a focused approach to mentoring and study support, addressing the agendas of individual students within the auspices of their whole university experience and coursework.

Each student brings different life experiences and will come into contact with a range of different professionals, so the different chapters also hold relevance for internal and external support practitioners and agencies in addition to the autistic individuals, mentors and study skills support workers themselves. An immediate list, though not exhaustive, should also include:

  • Autistic students
  • Mentors
  • Support workers
  • Disability support workers
  • People who work in the Mental Well-being environments (within and outside university)
  • Tutors
  • Parents/carers
  • People within FE and sixth form environments
  • Practitioners from intersectionality settings e.g. LGBTQ+, BAME, faith communities

Autism and Mental Wellbeing in Higher Education, published by Pavilion, is available to order now.