Students with Asperger’s Syndrome or autism typically enter Trinity not knowing much about their condition. Few are told what it or what it means to be autistic. Faced with meeting a disability staff member on entry asking probing questions about their disability and how it impacts them can be daunting.
Typically, these students focus on the challenges and deficits or what they were told by parents or teachers about their differences. The Trinity Ability Co_op has started to challenge our views of the brilliant difference neurodiverse people can bring to the conversation on celebrating difference in a world that can look so “the same”.
Neurodivergent means having a brain that functions in ways that diverge significantly from the dominant societal standards of “normal”. In a university like Trinity, students who don’t fit in this normality struggle to fit in and function. The neurodiversity advocates for several goals, including greater acceptance of autistic behaviours, services that focus on improving quality of life rather than on imitating the behaviours of neurotypical peers. They also believe that the autism spectrum should be accepted as a natural expression of the human genome, and accommodated like any other disability – the cornerstone of the social model of disability. Trinity supports these goals, and rather than focusing on being “autism friendly”, we value difference and aim to allow neurodiverse and neurotypical people to co-exist together, understanding each other’s needs.
Trinity has a long history of attracting neurodiverse students and has pioneered many innovative supports. Trinity Disability Service recognises students on the autistic spectrum (AS) and accompanying conditions – for example, ADD/ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia (DCD), epilepsy and sensory processing disorders. Outcomes in higher- education settings are varied, often uncertain, and less straightforward than peers who do not present with autism. Therefore, early engagement with post-school education providers, and exposure to post-school guidance and choices, is essential.
Outcomes in higher- education settings are varied, often uncertain, and less straightforward than peers who do not present with autism.
Neurodiverse students now make up the largest cohort of students with disabilities in Trinity (54 per cent) and it is growing significantly (50 per cent increase in students with autism in 2020). There are significant retention issues for this cohort, with 24 per cent withdrawing or taking longer to complete their degrees in Trinity. Transition strategies and dedicated supports are critical for neuro-divergent students to allow them more time to become familiar with Trinity and the challenges of third level education.
The journey from adolescence to adulthood is fundamentally one of increasing self awareness, growth of independence, self-regulation, emotion regulation and development of daily living skills. For neurodiverse students, this is not always a linear process, individual differences, being atypical in a typical world can impact upon how this plays out for each individual. Universities are still learning to support the rapidly increasing numbers of neurodiverse students and consequently have not established consistent ranges of measures which support all students, in what can be a challenging environment.
Neurodiverse students possess a number of strengths which serve them well in academia – for example, attention to detail, analytical skills, passion for learning, specialist topics, technology skills and creative thinking. Clearly, they have the cognitive capacity and ability and are not fulfilling their potential at university. It has been suggested that high rates of attrition and unfulfilled potential are possibly related to other non-academic challenges, which are critical for success. A recent survey by the Trinity Ability Co_op saw students on the autism spectrum report particular social difficulties including general social skills, difficulty making friends, stress and anxiety in social situations, emotional dysregulation and self-advocacy problems. Individuals also experience social isolation, loneliness, bullying, sensory processing difficulty and stigmatization compared to neurotypical peers. Late diagnosis (average age 15) and lack of awareness of their diagnosis were serious concerns for most.
In a recent Trinity study, 80 per cent of participants report moderate to severe levels of depression, 92 per cent report moderate to extremely severe anxiety and 48 per cent report moderate to severe levels of stress. Despite high levels of mental health concerns, a minority of participants (18.8 per cent) refer to their university’s counselling and disability support service. Under a third discuss their difficulties with friends (28.1 per cent) and 43 per cent of participants reported barriers in accessing health services.
Neurodiverse students possess a number of strengths which serve them well in academia – for example, attention to detail, analytical skills, passion for learning, specialist topics, technology skills and creative thinking
Mental health difficulties can often be overlooked in autism, an autistic person may not always easily identify or be able to describe their emotions (alexithymia). They may also experience symptoms of depression and anxiety which overlap with autistic traits, for example social withdrawal, sleep difficulties. Autistic individuals often struggle to access appropriate care and support as a result of systemic barriers and lack of capacity – a recent survey of autistic students in Irish universities found that.
In line with growing prevalence and diagnosis rates, Trinity Disability Service currently supports students across the university by providing support for incoming students (e.g. Autism & Uni, an online facility, academic supports, a needs assessment by an occupational therapist (OT), (and subsequent OT supports, including sensory spaces such as respite rooms), a weekly neuro-diverse drop-in group run by peers) and have innovated. Trinity Student Counselling Services and College Health also provide autism specialist mental health support.
To improve students’ experiences and to enable students to access all aspects of university life, thus improving student retention, the onus is on Trinity to be proactive and develop appropriate and connected support systems. A number of areas in which universities can offer support are identified. Within the university system, the need for staff and professionals to have specific expertise, knowledge and understanding of autism and potential comorbid health difficulties was highlighted as essential. A critical avenue for development is to offer specialised mental health support and a space to promote personal growth for neurodiverse students. Additional areas for growth within the system include campus-wide efforts to increase inclusion, integration, increase autism awareness, acceptance and reduce any related stigma. Furthermore, consideration of service provision also needs to be given to those who are undiagnosed or simply do not want to disclose their diagnosis.
The heterogeneous nature of autism makes it challenging to identify one approach that will work for all students, thus there is a need to carry out research to determine the extent to which new interventions, as well as current supports and services are truly meeting the needs of this population at Trinity. While the studies surveyed here provide avenues for future directions, many studies were limited in their sample sizes and methodology. Thus generalisation of the findings must be interpreted with caution.
To improve students’ experiences and to enable students to access all aspects of university life, thus improving student retention, the onus is on Trinity to be proactive and develop appropriate and connected support systems.
Nonetheless, common themes identified provide a promising guide for service development and also indicates the need for further research. This is an integral role that Trinity could play both nationally and internationally by collecting data on the outcomes of its measures and interventions. In this manner Trinity could create a database of evidence-based supports which identifies effective practices which benefit autistic students.
Increasing numbers of incoming neurodiverse students provide the opportunity to further boost Trinity’s reputation as a leader in inclusivity, support and empowerment for the neurodiverse community. Trinity Disability Service proposes to become a centre of excellence building upon what has already been achieved. A neurodiversity specialist will be appointed to work upon the following theme areas:
Theme 1: Transition Programme
Theme 2: Academia: Staff Training, Environment, Accommodations
Theme 3: Student Identity, Social and Communication Challenges, Inclusion
Theme 4: Sensory processing and university environments