What does it mean to be an autistic student?

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In this project, we’re aiming to find out more about the experience of autistic students.

What is autism? 

That’s a really difficult question to answer. We know that autism is an extremely variable condition, with this ‘heterogeneity’ currently being explored in research in terms of subgroups and trajectories (Happé & Frith, 2020). However, the current standard diagnostic criteria (DSM-5; American Psychiatric Association, 2013; ICD-11 World Health Organization(WHO), 2021) use a single category of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Increasingly, neurodiversity approaches consider the characteristic of autism and other conditions such as ADHD and dyslexia as part of variations across the whole population in ways of thinking (Baron-Cohen, 2017; den Houting, 2019). New approaches, using techniques such as machine learning, are exploring autism and neurodiversity in ways that bring out the complexity of difference across multiple domain (Astle & Fletcher-Watson, 2020).

Broad and varied

Even with variability and uncertainty, we can still explore what it means to be autistic. Some of the most interesting ideas, models and theories of autism are those that reflect this diversity and uncertainty (see Fletcher-Watson & Happé, 2019 for an overview). Early models seeking a single explanation for autism based on specific biological, neurological or cognitive features have been replaced by research exploring networks and interactions between processes (Happé & Frith, 2020).  New techniques are being developed to explore active connections across the brain (Di Martino et al., 2014).

Being autistic at university

It’s important to consider that getting a diagnosis can be a complex and difficult process. So, there is no expectation that all autistic students will have a formal diagnosis. There will also be students who are unaware of their autism, either because they have experienced no difficulties that would prompt seeking a diagnosis or because their difficulties have been attributed to something else such as anxiety.  

It’s common for students to explore an autism diagnosis whilst at university. This can be as a result of experiencing difficulties and being referred to university support services. Student can also become aware at university that their style of thinking and learning may align with the characteristics of autism without experiencing particular difficulties – by having more flexibility to explore their own preferences and by meeting other autistic students.

Strengths and preferences

Whilst this project aims to explore the challenges faced by autistic students at university, particularly when learning environments and activities do not meet their needs, we are also gathering information on strengths and preferences. Understanding the types of learning environment and activity that work well for autistic students is key to delivering  inclusive education.

Useful resources

autism & uni – https://www.autism-uni.org/

The Uni Guide – https://www.theuniguide.co.uk/advice/choosing-a-course/living-with-autism-applying-for-university

NAS transitions guide – https://www.autism.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/topics/transitions/england/starting-college-or-university

Online Autism Screening Tool https://psychology-tools.com/test/autism-spectrum-quotient


American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5. (5th ed.). American Psychiatric Association.

Astle, D. E., & Fletcher-Watson, S. (2020). Beyond the Core-Deficit Hypothesis in Developmental Disorders. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 096372142092551. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721420925518

Baron-Cohen, S. (2017). Editorial Perspective: Neurodiversity – a revolutionary concept for autism and psychiatry. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 58(6), 744–747. https://doi.org/10.1111/jcpp.12703

den Houting, J. (2019). Neurodiversity: An insider’s perspective. Autism, 23(2), 271–273. https://doi.org/10.1177/1362361318820762

Di Martino, A., Yan, C.-G., Li, Q., Denio, E., Castellanos, F. X., Alaerts, K., Anderson, J. S., Assaf, M., Bookheimer, S. Y., Dapretto, M., Deen, B., Delmonte, S., Dinstein, I., Ertl-Wagner, B., Fair, D. A., Gallagher, L., Kennedy, D. P., Keown, C. L., Keysers, C., … Milham, M. P. (2014). The autism brain imaging data exchange: Towards a large-scale evaluation of the intrinsic brain architecture in autism. Molecular Psychiatry, 19(6), 659–667. https://doi.org/10.1038/mp.2013.78

Fletcher-Watson, S., & Happé, F. (2019). Autism: A new introduction to psychological theory and current debate. Routledge.

Happé, F., & Frith, U. (2020). Annual Research Review: Looking back to look forward – changes in the concept of autism and implications for future research. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, jcpp.13176. https://doi.org/10.1111/jcpp.13176

World Health Organization(WHO). (2021). The ICD-11 classification of mental and behavioural disorders. World Health Organization.

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