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The following recommendations were recorded and developed by the AS Project Officer and steering group members from study participant feedback concerning the challenging aspects of the student lifecycle from pre-entry to graduate progression.

It is acknowledged that some of the support and adjustments recommended herein may already be part of existing policy and practice. However, the feedback from study participants suggested that individual experiences differed radically depending on the specific academic context within which they found themselves.

Many of the recommendations are very straightforward and describe inclusive practice which would benefit all students, not only students with Asperger syndrome. The recommendations within the report recognise and should be interpreted within the context of existing policies regarding student welfare, specifically any college Fitness to Study policies.

Ten common topics emerged from the student responses:

  1. Transition and Planning
  2. Accommodation
  3. Institutional Communication
  4. Role of Student Services (including Disability Services)
  5. Mentoring (including Peer mentoring) and Study Skills
  6. Learning and Teaching
  7. Diagnosis
  8. Mental health
  9. Socialising
  10. Transition into employment

1. Transition and Planning

  • The pre entry phase can feel extremely lengthy to incoming students with AS and this can lead to increased anxiety. Keeping in touch with students, or giving them an easy way to reach a member of DRC/College contact to ask any questions once they have been offered a place can help alleviate this anxiety. It is helpful to tell the student that they can ask about anything.
  • Widening participation activities should be mindful of, and positive towards, the requirements of disabled students. Disabled student ambassadors could help to communicate this message. It is impossible to know how many prospective students are put off at an early age because they have never felt ‘good enough’ to think about Oxbridge.
  • It is easy to celebrate diversity and give the impression of problematising disability at the same time. Students with AS often have low self esteem, even if they are very high achievers. It is very important to acknowledge success and make them feel extremely welcome.
  • Students who had to unravel early negative experiences suggested that getting it right early on can set the tone for on-going productive engagement.
  • A positive welcoming approach, reflected in university literature and interactions with people, can set the tone for developing a sense of belonging.
  • Provide taster days for prospective students across all subjects, with current students having a key role.
  • Ensure explicit pre-entry information is widely available, and includes clear guidance on all relevant services that explains what each can provide and how to access the key contact. (Services should not be limited to those aimed at disabled students.)
  • Offer meetings between new students with AS and their college tutor and/or Director of Studies before the start of term. (Ensure that staff are adequately briefed in advance.)
  • Establish guidance appointments with a Disability Adviser as early as possible, to discuss support requirements and set up services accordingly.
  • Encourage students to apply for DSA as early as possible, e.g. 6 months before their university start date. Provide easily accessible clear information about DSA.
  • Understand that Fresher’s Fair is an opportunity to join in with a wide range of activities but may well be inaccessible to students with AS because it is usually too noisy and crowded. Implement a quiet hour at the start of each day of Fresher’s Fair. For example, turn down/off the music, and/or limit the number of people in at one time.
  • Offer to provide a Fresher's buddy who can help navigate Fresher's Fair (including a pre-planning session if required). Understand that some students with AS have experienced bullying and social exclusion in the past and may well be nervous about social contact.
  • Provide a wide variety of induction and fresher’s activities; for example, include some activities that don’t involve crowded chaotic venues, or alcohol.
  • Clubs and societies provide valuable opportunities to interact around a theme (e.g. chess).
  • Activities such as swimming or rowing can provide opportunities to interact socially within very clear parameters and can be helpful. Exercise promotes wellbeing.
  • Don’t wait until later in the programme to introduce available services from beyond DRC. Make information about all services easily available.
  • Provide, from an early stage, specialist advice and guidance for students with AS and disabled students as part of the Careers Service.
  • Raise awareness of disabled graduates’ experiences. Connect with students and graduates nationally, as well as employers and professional bodies who are already active in this area, for example, the Institute of Physics, Barclays, Goldman Sachs. Provide case studies of graduates’ experiences.

2. Accommodation

  • Ensure clear application processes for student accommodation. Include information on how rooms are allocated and opportunities for students to discuss access requirements at an early stage.
  • Provide visual information, such as a virtual tour, about accommodation so the student can get a sense of how it looks.
  • Consider favourably requests from students with AS to keep the same room for the duration of their course.
  • Recognise when determining room allocation that en-suite rooms and rooms on quieter corridors/halls of residence can be of benefit to students with AS.
  • Ensure the annual allocation of suitable student rooms provides equal opportunities for all students. Some systems can favour students already in friendship groups and not those who apply independently, for example.
  • Be mindful that some students with AS, while being academically brilliant, may not have excellent life skills such as cooking, shopping etc. Provide clear, non patronising, advice and guidance as necessary. (This may well be helpful to other students who are away from home for the first time.)

3. Institutional Communication

  • Link from all college and department webpages to the DRC under the list of student services. Avoid contradictory information in different parts of the website.
  • Ensure that the University prospectus and other guidance documents, for example the Parent Guide, include information informed by recognised good practice in respect of disabled students. All information should be positive about disability as a valued diversity characteristic.
  • Information about the university should include practical advice about, for example, registering with a GP and dentist.
  • Establish a forum for staff and students conducting disability related research to network and share professional expertise across the institution and nationally with the Disabled Education Research Network (DERN).
  • Ensure key contacts’ roles are clearly defined for new students, including student roles like ‘college parent’, for example.
  • Develop close communication between the DRC, Admissions and Widening Participation teams to facilitate useful information reaching the widest pool of talented applicants, including those with AS. Emphasise a positive attitude towards students with AS.
  • Develop close working relationships between Disability Advisers and academic departments. Focus on sharing information, developing knowledge between departments and the disability service, and maintaining effective student focussed working relationships
  • Ensure that all forms and documents are relevant, inclusive clear, explicit and logical.

4. Role of Student Services (including Disability Services)

  • Establish and maintain clear lines of communication between Disability Advisers and colleges/ departments for the discussion of student support requirements. Make confidentiality protocols clear.
  • Establish a working group to continue to implement recommendations and build upon the work of the Cambridge AS project.
  • Continue to promote understanding of the Social Model of Disability.
  • Provide a clearly signposted welcoming and open entrance to student services. Ensure that the layout is designed to avoid confusion and maximise clarity about what to do when entering the department.
  • Consider informative, inclusive and non stigmatising alternatives to current departmental names. Feedback highlighted that many students experience discomfort (therefore avoid) or simply don’t identify with the current terminology, i.e. ‘Disability Resource Centre’.
  • Employ a specialist Adviser for students with Asperger syndrome/autism.
  • When students book guidance appointments via reception, record pertinent information about the reason for booking and ensure that Advisers have relevant background information in preparation for an appointment.
  • Provide a two-tier advice service.
  • Offer speedy initial advice and guidance to students making enquiries at the DRC.
  • Provide on-going advice and guidance appointments as a key second tier.
  • Assess and anticipate support requirements and provide clear and pragmatic advice and guidance in order to reduce the likelihood of future crisis or difficulties.
  • Advertise and provide regular focussed drop-in in sessions on relevant topics such as applying for DSA or exam access arrangements.
  • A student’s support recommendations need to be clearly and explicitly communicated to academic staff. Open lines of communication for liaison between student services and academic staff need to be maintained. A widely used method for communication support recommendations is a Student Support Document produced by University Disability Advisers. Revisions should be updated on the student’s support document with their approval at any point during their course. Confidentiality needs to be explicit.
  • Ensure the case management database of student records is easy to navigate and aids the Student Advisers to access information and data efficiently and effectively. Required information should include individual appointment logs recording the date and purpose off all appointments booked/attended.
  • Missed appointments should be recorded and trigger an invitation to rebook.
  • Establish key DRC team contacts for work relating to different stages of the student life cycle, including pre-entry, graduate transition/careers, and placements/internships. Enabling close working relationships with other services and sharing of information/expertise, which respects boundaries of confidentiality.

5. Mentoring (including Peer mentoring) and Study Skills

  • Provide peer mentoring schemes for new students with mentors from years above within the same college and/or department. Enable contact before the start of term.
  • Make online mentoring available for students who prefer this form of communication.
  • Provide clearly defined role (task) descriptions for non-medical helpers (NMHs).
  • Provide information explaining how and why mentoring and study skills tuition can support a student with AS. Emphasise individuality.
  • Consider individual students’ support requirements as part of the NMH matching process. Feedback from students often indicated a preference for someone close in age who looks more like a peer than an assistant.
  • Ensure there is a mechanism to record and regularly feedback details of mentoring support sessions to the DRC from the student and mentor.
  • Recruit mentors and study skills tutors with knowledge and experience of working with students with Asperger syndrome, an understanding of the social model of disability, and a commitment to being reliable.
  • Advertise for new mentors via local NAS services, autism specialists and possibly universities that offer courses on autism from a social model perspective (e.g. Birmingham, Sheffield Hallam, Strathclyde, IOE).
  • Share resources between HEIs relating to non-medical helpers (NMH) schemes. Including examples of mentor handbooks, NMH policy, role descriptions, student feedback, duty of care policy, guidance on boundaries and research into good practice.

6. Learning and Teaching

  • Understand the various roles and local systems particular to your institution and their boundaries.
  • Provide timetables as far in advance as possible.
  • Allow online sign up to course modules/sessions.
  • Make available, where possible, drop in locations for students that are calm and provide minimal sensory stimulation. This could possibly include a room in the department, tutorial or college nurse’s room.
  • Utilise specialist services within your institution, i.e. Disability Advisers, guidance documents, on-line training.
  • Try and ensure that supervisions/tutorials/lectures are scheduled at the same time and day and location, where possible, and, if not possible, ensure this has been clearly communicated. Avoid ‘special’ communication—the whole student body needs routine access to this sort of information.
  • Do not assume that everyone with AS is the same – if you have met one person with AS you have met one person with AS. Women may present differently from men (and within genders, differences are also to be expected).
  • Describe clear boundaries around roles and be reliable and consistent.
  • Advise in advance of any changes to any sort of arrangements in anticipation that unpredictable change causes distress. Communicate clearly.

7. Diagnosis

  • Be very clear about availability and cost of diagnostic resources (including post diagnostic support) in your area before making any promises to students.
  • Be aware that some students may have had a diagnosis in childhood that they may no longer feel comfortable with.
  • Take your lead from the student when approaching discussions about the AS label and diagnosis.
  • Students without a formal diagnosis (or who do not wish to pursue diagnosis) can still be supported effectively.
  • Monitor referrals for diagnosis of autism/AS for students at university, including numbers and waiting times
  • Train Disability Advisers to enable them to make referrals for diagnosis to specialist clinics or GPs, as appropriate.
  • Diagnosis is a process, not an event. Be aware that initial relief at a formal diagnosis can give way to anxiety. Post diagnostic support is necessary as questions/concerns can emerge at any time.
  • Incorporate the views and support requirements of HE students in the local/national development of post-diagnostic support. Work with local diagnostic clinics (e.g. CLASS) and NAS services to ensure students’ views are represented.

8. Mental health

  • AS is not a mental health difficulty, but secondary mental health problems such as anxiety and depression can occur. These secondary problems can be largely avoided through anticipatory adjustments and inclusive practice (while acknowledging that academic life of itself can be inherently stressful).
  • In-depth interests are common and can be highly motivating. The in-depth interests of people with AS should not be confused with OCD.
  • Adherence to ‘sameness’, i.e. resistance to change and perfectionism can be an anxiety response. Much anxiety is avoidable in a reliable, empathic, anticipatory and logical environment.
  • Solution-focussed counselling such as CBT may be more appropriate than psychodynamic counselling. Social isolation can be a cause of depression which can be addressed through social inclusion.
  • Periods of high anxiety will fluctuate and change in reaction to circumstances. Anxiety around transition is to be expected but can be minimised.
  • Do not assume that appropriate and effective services are available beyond the university, or that interventions within university need to be complex and costly.

9. Socialising

  • Be aware that some people like their own company and prefer interacting online rather than face-to-face (also that this can change over time).
  • Not all social experiences need to revolve around drinking and noise – provide alternative events/opportunities, e.g. socialising around exercising.
  • Freshers’ Fair can present extreme sensory overload and help to access clubs and societies via a calmer entry point may be required.
  • Previous experience of bullying is common and has a long term effect.
  • Structured opportunities to socialise around a theme (clubs, societies) can be very helpful.
  • Social groups around a theme, such as chess or swimming, provide opportunities for interactions that are structured and unambiguous.
  • The sensory environment is important – pubs and clubs, for example, may be too crowded and noisy.
  • Training and information for student peers acting in supporting roles needs to emphasise individuality of people with AS and the requirement for peers to be reliable (e.g. College parents, peer mentoring).

10. Transition into employment

  • Start to plan early. Introduce students to careers services early in their programme.
  • Provide a 10 point guide of actions a student should take before they leave university, made available to all final year students. Ensure students are clear about additional tasks, including leaving a forwarding address or email address.
  • Collaborate with Careers Service to develop careers module for students with AS.
  • Address gaps in CVs by looking at internships (employability) – linking to specialist services e.g. Prospects. Identify and emphasise strengths.
  • Assist graduates with AS to identify relevant experiences and skills to include within CV.
  • Provide assistance in preparation for interviews, and explore alternatives to interviews, such as work trials, where appropriate.
  • Ensure that support provision in HE is mirrored in employment (e.g. Access to Work, Prospects) – do not assume support will be automatic; plan and prepare.
  • Think creatively about employment options, e.g. self-employment.
  • Help the student to negotiate the social environment of work, e.g. via personal statements / mentor support.
  • Facilitate work trials/placements, where appropriate.