In 2018, UCC started the three-year ‘Autism Friendly University Initiative’, aiming to make the physical, social and academic spaces of the University more inclusive for autistic students. This includes the development of an autism-friendly and accessible Calm Zone, outdoor sensory spaces and the adaptation of an online toolkit designed to support autistic students with the transition to university (created by the Autism&Uni Project).
What prompted the initiative?
University College Cork (UCC) is Ireland’s leading research institute, with excellent support systems and countless opportunities to develop both academically and personally. The Autism Friendly University Initiative was developed at UCC to address some of the challenges faced by autistic students in a more holistic way. It was acknowledged that it is not realistic or fair to expect students to have to identify areas in which they need support and make adjustments themselves.
Further, the understanding of autism varies greatly between staff members, with some having personal experience, and some have very limited knowledge or may be misinformed about autism.
The initiative was designed with collaboration between different university services, namely; Building and Estates, The Capital Projects Office and The Disability Support Service. It should also be noted that the project co-ordinator is autistic herself!
What impact does the initiative have?
There has been an increased understanding of the difficulties that many autistic students face and an increase in autism advocacy which has given the autistic community a voice to articulate what challenges they face at university. UCC hopes that by improving the university experience for autistic students, the experience will be improved for all students.
Overall, the initiative has received positive feedback with staff and students believing that the university sees inclusivity as a priority and that everyone should have access to higher education where possible. Staff have been willing to reflect on their own practice and feedback from students has been welcomed.
The Autism Friendly University Initiative is currently working on a ‘digital badge’ (a validation of training or skills) in autism awareness for university staff. The purpose of this training is to give staff an understanding of autism, the challenges autistic students may face and the strengths that students with autism may possess, as well as how to play to these strengths within the university. The training will also cover how small changes can make a significant impact on the wellbeing of students and how these small changes can prevent a potential issue from becoming a problem. It is hoped that with this training, staff across the university will be able to reflect on their own practice and integrate autism friendliness into their work.
In the future, UCC aims to further develop supports and resources for autistic students, including online resources, to increase autonomy and self-advocacy. They also aim to explore the challenges for autistic staff within the university.
Tips for current students
- Be vocal about challenges and support needs, advocating for yourself can give a voice to the autistic community to articulate the challenges that may be faced when at university.
Tips to share with lecturers
- Reflect on your own practice and feedback from students, do this by giving autistic students and graduates a voice to articulate the challenges they face at university.
- Don’t assume that the student should adapt to the existing set up.
- Seek out opportunities for autism awareness training to better understand autism, the challenges autistic students may face and the strengths they may possess.