All students with a disability have the right to participate in education on the same basis as other students. If you are on the autism spectrum, that means having equal access to the higher education opportunities you aspire to, with the support and reasonable adjustments you might need.
In this blog, Accessibility Services Officer at Victoria University (VU), Maria Vardakis, shares four tips aimed at people working in higher education to improve access for people who are on the autism spectrum.
1. Early conversations help students to navigate uni life
Early conversations are particularly important, as are producing personalised access plans for each individual.
One of the most important steps a neurodivergent student can take is to arrange the right support at the beginning of their study journey. At VU, students and parents can come to us at any time, even before they have started their course.
In these early conversations with students and parents we assist students to navigate university systems, encourage them to access social groups and engage with workshops, and ensure they can participate in all aspects of university life.
We also look at possible adjustments that might need to be made to placement and clinical arrangements, and consider the inherent requirements of the course. We link students up with key academic staff and administration personnel, who can discuss courses, progress, and outcomes.
We also promote Universal Design for Learning (UDL) across all areas of teaching, learning and course design.
2. Support students on the autism spectrum to strengthen non-academic skills
While students on the autism spectrum and neurodiverse learners are enrolling in tertiary level study at an increasing rate, more progress needs to be made for students on the autism spectrum to access the graduate career outcomes and employment opportunities they aspire to, on the same basis as students without a disability.
For example, non-academic career skills like searching for jobs and preparing for interviews are important when securing employment after graduation. At VU, all students can receive support in these areas through the VU Employ team and our Gradwise Program. We want to make sure all students on the autism spectrum are aware of these services, to help with non-academic employability skills.
3. Understand that the supports neurodiverse students might need are many and varied
Due to growing awareness in the community about autism and neurodiversity, it’s been pleasing to see a significant reduction in the barriers and stereotypes neurodivergent learners face.
On an academic level, most academics have had a neurodivergent learner in their class. And increasingly there is are more staff, students and academics with lived experience of neurodiversity. As a result, more neurotypical people are aware that they know someone on the autism spectrum.
However, more progress is needed to move from awareness to understanding the diverse needs of people on the autism spectrum.
Of course, not all neurodiverse students are the same and so their support, learning and the barriers they face will be many and varied.
4. Advocate for big-picture changes at your institution
Increasing student confidence provides students with empowerment and a greater sense of partnership and belonging.
VU has some really exciting things underway, with involvement from staff across the university.
There is a social group for neurodiverse students that runs across our campuses, and this social group has already run two events in 2023, supported by the University.
Sensory spaces are available at two of our campuses, with one more coming soon. Students can go to these spaces if they need a calm, quiet space.
There is also more information available about non-academic skills required to perform within a profession available at a course level. These inherent requirement statements help neurodivergent learners to make an informed choice about their course before it commences and feel confident about their decision.
I’d encourage all higher education providers to engage with their neurodiverse staff, students and academics on how they can further support and empower their students in their academic and post-academic career.
As an Accessibility Services Officer at Victoria University (VU), Maria Vardakis works with students with disability, illness and who are neurodivergent to ensure they can equitably access all aspects of the education experience – whether in the classroom, on placement, or in social settings – as well as graduation and career opportunities. Accessibility Services are free, safe, private and confidential.
Additional resources and learning:
You can find out more about Accessibility Services at Victoria University or contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Australian Disability Clearinghouse for Education and Training (ADCET) is funded by the Federal Department of Education – the leading resource on disability in tertiary education for disability practitioners, educators, and students.
Explore more of Aspect’s resources about World Autism Awareness Day.
In 2022, VU and Aspect, Australia’s largest provider of autism-specific services and school programs, entered into a partnership aimed at boosting workforce support for the estimated 1-in-70 Australians on the autism spectrum. Participants at Aspect Adult Community Services will soon be enjoying a new centre located at VU’s St Albans campus.