Monday 20 November 2017

Creating an autism friendly campus

A new project at Dublin City University aims to ease the transition to college for students with ASD and boost job prospects

Helping hands: Adam Harris (left) with student ambassadors Conor Gilligan and Olivia Forde at the Autism Experience exhibition at DCU
Helping hands: Adam Harris (left) with student ambassadors Conor Gilligan and Olivia Forde at the Autism Experience exhibition at DCU
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

Going to college can be a difficult transition for students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). In school they may have received special support, but they can struggle when they have to make the change to third level, even if they are academically gifted.

Once they are established in college, they then have to plan their careers. Finding internships and graduate jobs can present more difficult obstacles.

Dublin City University (DCU) is aiming to become 'Ireland's first autism-friendly campus' and students will see changes starting in the next academic year.

It is an ambitious undertaking that aims to change the university's environment and raise awareness among students and staff.

Led by DCU's Dr Mary Rose Sweeney, the project involves Adam Harris's autism support service, AsIAm.ie, and Specialisterne, a recruitment support agency for people with autism.

Harris sees DCU's project as a breakthrough and he hopes supports for students with autism will become more important at all third level colleges as a large cohort who were diagnosed as children reach adulthood.

He says while much has been done to provide support and raise awareness at school, there is now a need to look at the next phase.

"Going to college is a huge opportunity for students with autism. It can be a lot more suited to some people because they can pursue their academic interests, and they can pursue their interests socially in college societies. However, the transition can be so big that they have a negative experience," says the autism campaigner, who is a brother of Health Minister Simon Harris.

He says the difficulties faced by students are often not academic. Many of the problems are connected with the social environment.

People with autism may be sensitive to noise, big crowds, smells and particular types of decor. Colleges may be difficult to navigate, and staff and fellow students may lack awareness about autism. Surveys among students at DCU have also shown that there is still a strong stigma attached to the disability, and many are reluctant to talk about their diagnosis openly. Research by DCU found that some students fear isolation.

Harris says: "When people with autism cannot discuss it openly, others may make assumptions about them. There is a greater risk of being isolated, and they may not be able to get the support they need."

Dr Sweeney helped to inspire the autism-friendly campus initiative after DCU held a successful orientation programme for students arriving at the university four years ago. It was held during a quiet time in the summer.

She says it gave the students an opportunity to be on campus and to see all the facilities and services: "They were able to meet staff at the college and to see what it was like to hang out on campus. The students really enjoyed it, and there was great feedback."

When it was suggested that DCU could be turned into an autism friendly campus, she leapt at the opportunity.

Students​ ​with​ ​autism​ ​have already been carrying out a ​'sensory​ ​audit​' in DCU.​ ​This​ ​assessment​ ​of​ ​the physical​ ​environment​ ​is looking at​ ​building design,​ ​decor, ​noise,​ and ​smells. It suggests ways to alter the physical layout of the university.

Among the changes coming to DCU in the year ahead are quiet spaces where students can go for meals.

For some students, fluorescent lighting and certain colours on the walls can provoke anxiety. The decor can be altered to alleviate this.

Harris says the sensory environment can be extremely debilitating for people with autism. He says students with autism can schedule their activities so that they are not exposed to big crowds.

"It is often a big help to students if they know what to expect. For example, if they know it is going to be noisy somewhere, they can bring earplugs."

Harris says it can be harder for people with autism to change routine, or to adapt to a change in schedule.

"If a lecture is cancelled it can cause a higher level of anxiety.Consistency is important. It is inevitable that change will happen in a person's life. So, for someone with autism it is about letting them know that it will happen, so that they can prepare for it. It is a bit like having a guide book before you go on holidays," he says.

In another initiative, before they arrive in DCU from school, students with autism will be given a handbook containing advice.

Dr Sweeney says coming to college can be difficult for any student, but students with autism can struggle a bit more.

An important part of DCU's transformation to being an autism-friendly campus is a programme to promote greater awareness among staff and the general student population.

Autism experience exhibitions have been held. Theyprovide students with an opportunity to understand what life is like for people with autism, as well as learning the basics of what autism is. In some activities, students are blindfolded and experience unexpected tastes and smells.

"If you don't live with autism it is very hard to understand what the challenges are, because it is an invisible disability. As a result it may be hard to have empathy and a recognition of what a person is experiencing. People might think someone is just being difficult, because they don't understand it," says Harris.

Funding of €50,000 has been received from the Dormant Accounts Fund for the DCU project.

College helps students on spectrum to find  internships and work suited to their abilities

DCU is working with the recruitment agency Specialisterne to help students with autism to find internships and pursue careers.

The agency helps people with autism to find work.

Although their interests vary, students with autism are often drawn to tasks that have a regular routine or are mathematical. They commonly work in IT.

Peter Brabazon of Specialisterne says many students still find it difficult to show their academic abilities when they are applying for jobs and seeking internships.

The challenges for jobseekers include difficulties in navigating the job application and interview process, gaps in work experience, or fitting into a work environment which might not be sensitive to their needs.

He says: "The community needs to be aware of the ability or disability of autistic people.

Some people still see it as threatening, or think that people with autism could not do a regular full-time job.

"Some of our candidates work in high level jobs including coding and programming."

Researchers at DCU are collaborating with other researchers on a study, Autism Spectrum Disorders in the EU.

They are inviting people with autism, their family carers and professionals working in autism services to complete three online surveys at asdeu.eu.

Irish Independent

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