All colleges and universities have autistic students. The key to their success will be a good transition, where staff get to know students and how to meet their needs.
It’s important for further and higher education settings to create a culture of inclusion and aspiration, as this will lead to progression and positive outcomes for all learners.
While autistic students may struggle with aspects of college and university life they have skills and strengths which should be valued. Enthusiasm, punctuality, determination and reliability are among the many qualities that students on the autism spectrum may bring.
Here are some ways that you can prepare an autistic student for entry.
- Have clear information on access arrangements in the prospectus and on your website.
- Ensure there are clear signs around the campus or site and maps that are easy to understand before potential students visit.
- Once you have established an applicant is autistic, contact them to discuss their needs and concerns.
- Provide support to help successful applicants find suitable accommodation if appropriate.
- Have a 'safe' space on campus for the individual to go to when anxiety levels get too high and highlight this to autistic students before they start their course.
- Provide information in a visual format if necessary eg photos of campus, site or staff.
- Ensure that you are linking with the schools of future students to create clear and robust transition plans and understand the individual’s needs. This could include attending annual reviews, transition visits for the student to college and college staff visiting and their current school to shadow staff.
- Understand and recognise the rights and needs of learners on the autism spectrum by: listening to their views and those of their family; personalising programmes and supporting them to reach their chosen destination.
- Identify someone, usually the disability co-ordinator or officer, who has responsibility for supporting autistic students and ensure that applicants are aware of this contact.
- Provide mentors who are more experienced students that want to be help support new autistic students with the more challenging aspects of college, such as walking through busy corridors and unstructured times.
- Effectively support transition for all learners, both from school to college and from college into higher education, ensuring they are working and living as independently as possible.
- Ensure that all college staff have an understanding of autism, and that teaching staff draw on specialist expertise to adapt the curriculum and develop inclusive teaching methods.
- Ensure all staff are given information about a student’s needs.
These adaptations may benefit all students, particularly those that may have other disabilities.
It’s useful to link in with local or national organisations that can provide support and ensure that students have the information they need. For example, Disabled Students' Allowance (DSA) can be claimed by students in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland.
Our student support service can give advice and support to students and all academic and non-academic staff.
Read more about how to support young autistic people to move from school to college.
Meeting students’ needs
Staff in colleges and universities should remember that each student on the autism spectrum (including those with an Asperger syndrome
or demand avoidant
profile) will have individual needs.
Here are some things you can do to help.
- Provide pastoral support or a particular staff member who the student can go to when they have concerns or are feeling anxious.
- Have a Disabled Students' Co-ordinator or Inclusive Learning Co-ordinator who is aware of students’ needs and can map out support.
- Allow additional time for autistic students to get accustomed to the campus or site.
- Adopt a flexible approach, enabling learners to progress and gain meaningful qualifications in the settings and time frames that are best for them.
- Be clear in communication, both written and verbal - this includes having evacuation and safety procedures that are accessible to all.
- Consider any sensory needs a student may have and how the environment will impact on them accessing facilities (eg lighting or acoustics). Make any reasonable adjustments.
- Make walking through busy corridors to change class or lecture rooms as stress free as possible.
- Think about the need for routine and/or repetitive behaviour a student may have and how this will impact on their learning.
- Help them develop their ability to organise and prioritise, and consider the use of support apps such as Brain in Hand.
- Offer social opportunities or support networks to enable learners to enjoy the broader social life of their educational community. These could be developed in partnership with external agencies.
- Remember that autistic students will need to be prepared for changes, eg to timetables.
- Provide a study skills service or tuition support that can look at specific needs a student may have, such as how to structure work.
- Be mindful of using literal language in written materials.
- Follow up teaching with printed course information if necessary.
- Allow extra time after group sessions to check the student has understood everything.
- Give additional time for the student to complete the course.
- Meet and exceed your legal duties to make reasonable adjustments for autistic students through actively removing barriers to learning.
- Be flexible and reflect upon working practices.
Alternative exam and assessment arrangements
- Have alternative ways to demonstrate team work skills other than working in groups.
- Prepare the student for the change of routine involved in sitting exams.
- Make special arrangements for exams where needed, such as allowing a support worker to clarify any ambiguous language in an exam paper.
Learn more about autistic students and exams.
Autism and disability awareness
- Arrange autism awareness training for staff.
- Ensure there is sufficient awareness of autism among other students.
- Have a Disabled Students' Representative in Student Union.
- Make sure that staff understand that autistic students are vulnerable to exploitation, bullying, mate crime and hate crime.
The Equality Act 2010, or the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (Northern Ireland), gives a legal framework for students with disabilities in accessing further and higher education.
Colleges and universities mustn’t discriminate against, harass or victimise disabled students. They must not treat disabled students less favourably because of their disability and they must make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to make sure they have the same access to education as non-disabled students.
Support to leave college or university
Transition can be particularly challenging for autistic students. They may need more time and support to look for suitable employment, including help with identifying possible careers, job applications and preparing for interviews.
Staff in further and higher education may need to identify suitable courses which will help develop these skills and prepare them for the work environment.
Read more about leaving college or university.
Further help from our charity
Student support services
Transition support service
Training for higher education staff
Student mentor guidelines
Finding work ebook
Information for employers
Government guidance SEND: 19- to 25-year-olds’ entitlement to EHC plans (published February 2017).
Last reviewed: 17 January 2017.