Securing a place on a university course is a significant achievement for any student, and navigating the education system in order to reach that point is not easy. However, many students find that once they arrive at university, dealing with the complexities of student life, the level of self-organisation and discipline this requires, coping with deadlines and tackling finances present a level of difficulty they had not anticipated. These issues can not only detract from students’ enjoyment of the experience, but create anxieties and complications that might put their entire studies at risk. And what are the additional difficulties that autistic students might face?
AuVision – Enhancing the Outcomes for Autistic Students – is a project initiated by academic staff and an independent mentor from Student Support Services from the University of Birmingham. Its purpose is to find out about the experiences of autistic students at the university and to devise specific recommendations and programmes in order to ensure they are better supported, to improve the quality of their university experience and facilitate better overall outcomes for them. Importantly, the scheme is entirely led by current autistic students, employed to consult with their peers and alumni from the University of Birmingham to gain the information needed.
The fact of being run by autistic students is central to the overall shape and format of AuVision. This not only meant that the Project Team were able to devise approaches which worked best for the various autistic participants, but they could also glean vital insights into how to develop a participatory model which can be adapted for replication with other user groups across the university. For example, the simple adjustment of providing participants with interview questions in advance was of great benefit to many. Similarly, holding a focus group online was found to be not only easier to manage from the point of view of the Project Team members, but for participants too.
AuVision is a project which is still ongoing, but initial findings suggest that while autistic students enjoy the content of lectures, the extra-curricular activities associated with university life and their increased independence – managing their workload, switching off from their studies and a lack of clarity about course requirements can be a struggle. Difficulties with self-organisation, and the stress that can result from this, can also be an issue for some. Suggestions so far about how these problems can be tackled include better staff awareness and help finding information, including knowing who to ask. The possibility of autism-only accommodation has also been discussed, although the Project Team are particularly interested in adaptations which would benefit all students, not just those who are autistic.
Project Assistant Marianthi Kourti (above right) made the following comments:
As an autistic researcher and University of Birmingham alumna, many of the experiences described by the students felt very relatable. I interviewed two students directly and I felt I had to keep myself from interrupting excitingly to state that I have been through the same and offer solutions. After one interview we stayed on the phone with the participant sharing our experiences and stayed in touch after the interview process.
The project’s main challenge was managing everyone’s different schedules, given that all of the project assistants as well as participants were University students with many other obligations related to their course. It was also challenging to make interviews that satisfied the participants’ needs in terms of both the content, but especially the format of interviewing. It was expected that many participants would opt for interview over Skype (text), but instead many preferred to have face to face interviews, so it was necessary, as a result, to arrange for transcriptions.
Dr. Ken Searle, another Project Assistant, stated the following:
Through being on the autistic spectrum, we found that undertaking the interviews and focus groups was challenging work, but advantageous in that the researchers could empathise with several of the concerns raised by respondents. Equally, through working together as a team, we were able to demonstrate a high level of organisation. Despite being autistic students, we were nonetheless able to pragmatically plan for varying scenarios, also accounting for students with different backgrounds and different ways to access the University of Birmingham: either as distance learners, students living at home or students currently in halls.
So, what next for AuVision? The plan is not only to develop a multi-media resource for use by staff and students alike, but to explore further applications for the wealth of data collected, such as contributing to the European project ‘autism&uni’, which aims to increase the numbers of autistic students with access to Higher Education. It is certainly hoped that the peer-to-peer model which AuVision so successfully represents can be replicated, for the benefit of many other university students.
This post was compiled by Becky Wood, using information provided by Marianthi Kourti, Dr Ken Searle and Dr Liz Ellis during the Research in Practice Seminar (RIPS) of 29th June, 2016, and from a written account provided by Dr Andrea MacLeod, Marianthi, Ken and the rest of the AuVision Project Team.
Did you know?
In 2011, the Autism Education Trust published a ground-breaking report – Outcomes – which focussed on educational provision and longer term outcomes for autistic individuals, and was led by Dr Kerstin Wittemeyer of ACER. It was one of the first major studies of its kind to place the perspective of autistic individuals at the centre of discussions about longer term outcomes, as well as that of education staff and parents. One of its findings, for example was that ‘a “good adult outcome” should always be considered within the context of individual needs and aspirations’ and that ‘it should not be assumed that that which is a good outcome for someone without autism is necessarily the same for someone with autism.’ Both the executive summary and the full report can be found here.