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Living with autism at uni: how to apply

Fewer than one in four school leavers with autism stay in further or higher education, but times are changing. Universities are taking steps to encourage autistic students to apply - if that's you, here's how to decide.

Over the last five years, there has been a 200% increase in university students on the autism spectrum.

With the right planning and support, autistic students can excel at uni - and that starts with choosing a university and course that's right for you.  

Choosing the best course with autism

With more than 50,000 undergraduate courses in the UK, it can be hard to spot which course is right for you. Like many students, you may be basing your choice on the topics you've enjoyed so far in education, or on the basis of a future career idea. 

Whilst this can be a good starting point, your autism may bring additional challenges, unique to you, which makes looking at how a course is delivered also important. 

Spend time researching the practicalities in terms of your abilities. For example:

  • Does the course include group work?
  • Will you be expected to deliver presentations?
  • How many seminars are there each week and how many people will be in the seminar?
  • Does the course include modules in different settings and if you need a supporter, will they be allowed on this site?

Be clear on what challenges you can prepare for and assess each course against this.

Talk with the university support team to understand more - they'll be able to answer any questions or concerns you have.

If a course doesn’t sound right, don’t be put off right away. Courses with the same title can be delivered very differently at each university. Dig into the detail to get a proper insight.

Finding an autism-friendly university

Your university choice can also make a big difference to your experience.
A big factor is location and if you want to live at home or not.  The familiarity and support offered by home may reduce your anxieties but you may also feel ready to increase your social independence.

Talk with your family and your preferred university's SEN lead or student services to help decide. 

If you do plan to live away from home, check the transport links and cost of travel, to ensure you're able to get home regularly if needed.

Open days are a great way to assess the environment, social opportunities and support offered. Look at accommodation, eating facilities and lecture rooms in terms of your sensory needs:
  • Will you cope with the environment?
  • Is there quiet hall accommodation or quiet rooms so that you don’t have sensory overload?
  • Can the university guarantee on-campus accommodation? 

Getting additional support

A university may not know from your Ucas form that you're autistic, so it's a good idea for you (or your parents) to contact the university's support services to let them know and find out what they can provide to help you overcome any particular challenges.  
Under the Equality Act 2010 (and Disability Discrimination Act 1995 in Northern Ireland), universities have a duty to make reasonable adjustments to support you.

This could include things like recording lectures, providing extra time for you in exams, individual note-taking, mentoring or study skills support with a specialist tutor.

Some universities run summer schools for autistic students. This can make a big difference as they enable you to become familiar with the university during a quieter period and begin to prepare for a successful transition from school to university.

Others, including Kings College London and De Montfort University open a few days before freshers' week to help autistic students settle in.

How to apply for Disabled Students Allowance

Across the UK, Education, Health and Care Plans (ECHP) do not continue into university. But if you're applying to do a higher education course at university, you can apply for a Disabled Students' Allowance (DSA) when you apply for your student finance online.
To do this you will need evidence of your diagnosis - a letter from your GP or a diagnostic report, stating crucially how your diagnosis may impact your life at university. 

From application to receiving the funds can be a lengthy process, Ucas advises that you start applying for financial help six to nine months before a course begins.
Once your Disabled Students Allowance entitlement is confirmed, arrange an appointment with a DSA Needs Assessor near you.

They will be able to work with you to plan what support will make the biggest difference to you, be it Non Medical Helper Support, IT equipment or help with travel. 

Again, don’t delay in making this appointment, as resources can take a while to process. 

Lifestyle goals and independence

The biggest hurdle to university often isn’t the coursework, lectures or studying, it's all the other parts of independent university life. 

Develop a plan well before university that ensures you know how to cook basic recipes and looking after yourself – how are you going to remind yourself to clean clothes regularly? 

We've got some further tactics to help you settle into university in those first few weeks.

Universities offer a wide range of social opportunities to pursue in a structured way. Look at the clubs and societies to see which ones appeal to you. Many include autism groups, to help students share experiences.  

Arming yourself with the tech 

There is a range of innovative technology approved by Student Finance England that can be purchased using your Disabled Students' Allowance. Your DSA assessor will be able to pinpoint which tech will best help you.

For example, Brain in Hand software enables you to access personalised support from an app on your phone. If a situation causes anxiety, you can quickly access your coping strategies and if you need extra help, you can alert a member of the National Autistic Society who will get in touch. 

Other useful kit include notetaking software such as Sonocent and mind mapping software like MindView.

More from our autism and university series

About the authors

This article was created in partnership with Carol Povey, Director of the Centre for Autism, at The National Autistic Society, Tina Sharpe, Head of Disability at DeMontfort University and Heather Cook, Client Director at Brain in Hand.

All contributors have an extensive knowledge of supporting students with SEND using a combination of best practice and technology.

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