Lauren's story – an autistic student's view of life at university

·6-min read
Lauren Gilbert <i>(Image: North East Autism Society)</i>
Lauren Gilbert (Image: North East Autism Society)

An investigation by the North East Autism Society has shown that autistic students are most likely to drop out of university. JULIE BRADFORD talks to one student about the challenges

LAUREN Gilbert, who is autistic and has ADHD, is a final-year Astrophysics student at Newcastle University.

Lauren had a passion for the subject when she started, and says the disability support team at the university could not have been better. But even then, they have struggled to stay on their course and have been put off further study.

Under the 2010 Equality Act, autistic and disabled students are entitled to reasonable adjustments to overcome any disadvantage they face.

Lauren, who also has long Covid, has a support plan detailing these adjustments, which include extra time for exams, rest breaks, recorded lectures and course materials provided in advance.

But they weren’t always implemented without a fight, Lauren says: “It’s great that I have this support plan but it doesn’t do anything if staff aren’t going to read it, or read it and say I don’t need that support. Staff sometimes don’t have the knowledge or understanding, don’t have the time, or just don’t want to implement things.

“I saw that nothing was going to happen if I didn’t make it happen myself. That’s why I ran for disability officer in the student elections. If I could lessen that for some students then that would be a better outcome than just letting it happen.”

Newcastle University says it works closely with students and staff to resolve any issues around support plans. “This includes support and resources for personal tutors and other academic staff on helping students with a range of disabilities, including neurodiverse conditions,” a spokesperson said.

But Lauren’s experience is far from an isolated one around the country.

Autistic students are less likely to complete their degree than any other disability group, an investigation by the North East Autism Society has found.

Of those who started university in 2019, 36% did not graduate in 2022 compared to an overall rate of 29%. That’s worse than any other disabled group, including deaf, blind or physically disabled students and those with chronic illness, learning disabilities or mental health issues.

Freedom of Information requests have been submitted to five North-east universities to find out what their dropout rates are for autistic students.

The national figures come from the Higher Education Statistics Authority, which also show that the dropout rate was exacerbated by the pandemic. It stood at 31% in 2017, 2018 and 2019, before rising to 37% when lockdown hit in 2020.

Research by other organisations also testifies to poorer outcomes for autistic students:

The proportion of autistic students achieving a 1st or 2.1 is lower than any other disability group of students, at 79%, according to the independent regulator the Office for Students (OfS)

The number of autistic students going on to graduate-level employment or further study is lower than any other group, at just over 60%, according to the OfS

Sixty-four percent of autistic students surveyed for a report by Disabled Students UK considered leaving university due to the pandemic – the highest rate of all the disability groups.

Being at university can be challenging for autistic and neurodivergent people, however academically capable they are.

Packed lecture halls and noisy workshops can be overwhelming from a sensory point of view, while coping with the sudden change and pressure to make new friends can be difficult for some autistic people. For those with ADHD, managing their own studies is an added pressure.

One Tyneside mother, whose autistic son dropped out of a maths degree at a North-east university, said there was too much onus on him to organise his own support or to seek help from tutors.

“There is a lot involved for an autistic person to ask for help,” she said. “If you can’t say ‘this is what I need’, you aren’t going to get any further. And parents can’t get involved so there’s no pre-emptive support person. There needs to be unique, person-centred care in place or people are going to get harmed.”

Her son, now 24, subsequently suffered poor mental health and is only now well enough to carry out a part-time work placement, three years on.

The North East Autism Society has its own specialist mentors who support students at various universities. They can meet autistic students regularly throughout their degree and help them with everything from contact tutors and coping with stress to finding their way around campus and making friends.

The mentors see all sorts of good practice at universities, including social events for disabled students, autism-friendly induction weeks, and monthly support-to-study meetings. Newcastle University runs a transition event to give autistic students early access to accommodation and the freshers’ fair, an autism support network, and a social mentoring scheme for events and clubs.

But they do run up against the one-size-fits-all approach at times. One of the mentors, Sophie Maddison, says: “The universities are great and a lot of the lecturers are amazing, but some staff are quite old-fashioned and close-minded in the way they do things.

“We have to speak to them and say, ‘this student has a needs assessment, you actually have to do this’.”

The adjustments that autistic students need are not huge. It can be something as simple as breaking down an assessment into bullet points or allowing them to leave a noisy class and do their work elsewhere.

Mette Anwar-Westander, of Disabled Students UK, says: “The 2010 Equality Act acknowledges that disabled students are put at a significant disadvantage and lays out their right to receive any reasonable adjustments which remove these barriers. This can be anything from captions on videos to adjustments to group work.

“Unfortunately, due to a lack of self-regulating mechanisms in the sector, the law is not currently being enforced. Our 2021 survey found that only 21 percent of autistic HE students received the support that they required.”

Newcastle University says it is is looking at ways to improve monitoring and implementation of support plans, including a planned digital platform and support of school-based wellbeing staff.

A Newcastle University spokesperson said: “We recognise that many students, and particularly those with autism, face a number of new challenges when they come to university. Our priority is to support every Newcastle student to realise their potential and get the most out of their time here with us.”

Mette, who is autistic, set up DSUK after they dropped out of a Masters. Now recognised as one of the most influential disabled-led organisations in the UK, it offers research and insight to universities in order to improve their accessibility.

One of the main things disabled students have told the organisation they would benefit from is online and recorded lectures, which they can watch at their own speed in a space that’s accessible and comfortable to them.

Clear guidelines and training for all academic staff are another thing autistic students want to see. “Sadly, attitudes from staff can make you feel quite unwelcome. Within some courses, there is an attitude of ‘if you can’t do it, you should drop out’,” Lauren says.

“If they were a little bit more understanding, it would make a world of difference.”

Disabled Students UK has set up a project called Access Insights which will survey disabled students’ experiences annually across all UK universities. The pilot survey is currently open - CLICK HERE.