Are UK universities doing enough for autistic students?
UK universities need to improve with their teaching and learning methods for SEN students. Source: Shutterstock

Earlier this month, an autistic student was allegedly suspended from her university course on health grounds.

The university reportedly claimed she was not well enough to continue. The Telegraph reported that first-year Emma Burton, who is diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, suffered stress-related fits in October, which her family claimed were due to the lack of key support workers she needed for the start of the autumn term.

Swansea University said their decision to suspend her was “taken solely with her wellbeing in mind”.

In a statement, the university said: “We offered a range of support to this student to help her study with her complex needs, however ultimately we felt she was too unwell to continue her studies at the present time.”

“We have offered her family an extended period to appeal the decision and talked to them about what medical evidence we would need which might allow us to overturn the decision.”

The case exemplifies some of the challenges autistic kids and individuals with other forms of disabilities face in higher education in the UK.

In addition to usual concerns such as where to study and what course to enrol in, autistic students typically need to take into account other factors such as the location, environment, social opportunities and special educational needs (SEN) support of any particular university or course.

Burton’s case raises questions as to whether UK universities are doing enough to provide autistic individuals with the support they need to excel in their studies.

According to the National Autistic Society, an education, health and care plan (EHC plan), which describes a student’s needs and the specialist help and provision required to meet those needs, is accessible in England for children and young people in schools through college. The EHC plan is not continued at university level. In Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, such plans stop at the college level.

At universities, additional support and adjustment are sometimes provided for autistic students, such as for individual note-taking, mentoring or study skills support with a specialist tutor. They may also request for other support such as more time in exams or a word processor or scribe, through the Additional Needs team, disability adviser or SEN support team.

Nonetheless, the lack of an EHC plan acts as a further barrier to those who have received SEN support throughout their education.

This could explain why disabled people are markedly less likely to be in higher education by the age of 19 than other people without disabilities, as found in a 2009 study by the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills.

The report also found they are slightly less likely to get a good degree compared to those without a disability. While most institutions have a designated disability officer as well as SEN inclusion in admissions, assessments and building policies, the report found that many areas still require further development.

This includes teaching and learning, monitoring and evaluation, and staff development to “address misleading concerns that adjusting to the needs of disabled students could undermine standards or could be seen as providing an unfair advantage.”

A Department of Education report on inclusive teaching, published 27 January 2017, showed a more promising future for SEN students in higher education. By demonstrating best practices and the risks of avoiding inclusive teaching practices, the report aimed to encourage more able students to have more confidence to attend university.

It stressed the broad obligations of higher education providers under the Equality Act 2010, such as the duty to make reasonable adjustments, which is far broader than thought.

As defined by Section 20 of the Act, this means taking reasonable steps to:

  1. Avoid putting a student with a disability at a substantial disadvantage compared to others without a disability;
  2. Ensure people with disabilities are not disadvantaged by a physical feature. A reasonable adjustment could involve removing or altering a physical feature; and
  3. Provide auxiliary aids to avoid putting a person with a disability at a disadvantage.

Universities should be proactive, and not just reactive to students with SEN needs.

Other features that show whether a university or college is doing enough to reduce barriers a child or young adult with SEN or a disability will face in education include the provision of a virtual learning environment, allowing the recording of teaching, availability of “lecture capture”, use of plain English in lecture slides and embedding inclusive practices in areas like recruitment, promotion, etc.

Institutions like the University of Derby show it is possible to include autistic students in higher education and for them to shine.

Writing in Times Higher Education, 25-year-old Ben Booth credits the great tutors and people on his course for the ability to study and excel in a degree in specialist sports journalism, something that just a few years ago seemed impossible to him.

Not having to sit for exams and have qualifications to get where he wanted to be – both of which are real challenges to autistic students that put them at a disadvantage – has been a life-changing educational experience for him.

“This is something that I never thought possible before and it is something that I still can’t quite believe is happening. It’s hard work and tiring, but I expected that and I truly enjoy the challenge.”

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