Transitioning to Tertiary Education: top tips from Autistic students and advocates

Written by Emma Marsh

So you’re thinking of enrolling in tertiary education – that’s fantastic news! Academia is greatly enriched by the kind of unique insights Autistic students bring to it – and universities and colleges have a lot of features that suit Autistic learning styles. For instance:

You can explore your passions – finally you need only study the subjects you’re interested in!

You can take research deep dives – longer time frames to explore your favourite subjects suit students who can hyperfocus and have a high attention to detail.

And you choose how little or how much you engage in campus social life. “Tute and scoot” or stay and explore your intersectional identities or sense of social responsibility by joining campus advocacy groups.

But it’s not all passions and ambition, first you need to survive the transition. A new campus, new timetable, new ways of learning, new students and a barrage of admission protocols can be incredibly daunting, and many an Autistic person’s tertiary study dreams have been disabled by the inaccessibility of it.

Yet Autistic students are impassioned experts with a lot of valuable knowledge to share, and accessing inclusive and accommodating tertiary education is not a luxury – it is a human right.

So, we asked Autistic advocates and university students Medha Gupta and Shadia Hancock for their top tips on how to successfully transition, and bring greater neurodiversity to university.

Firstly, do your research

Medha and Shadia recommend you identify the courses you’re interested in, then research the structure of the course to ensure it will play to your strengths. Some questions you will want answers to include: does the course involve lots of group work? How much of the assessment is made up of prac work, assignments or exams? “I know that for me at least, I can do really well at assignments and I can do really badly at exams,” says Medha. “Sitting there doing an exam, I just don’t always turn up my best work, but an assignment is something I can do, redo. I have that time to think about it. There’s more flexibility. So I would say that when you’re choosing your subjects, don’t just look at the content, look at the structure of that subject.”

Pace yourself and choose your campus

Check whether your course offers the option of part-time study. Being able to choose your study load is important, says Shadia, and some courses do offer part-time loads. “I think that’s a good discussion to have early on in the piece.” Also, check whether learning is done on campus or online. For some people, being on campus will just be too overwhelming, but many courses can be completed online from the comfort of your own home.

Research the universities’ and the courses’ disability supports

“I did a lot of research prior to studying, mainly around what disability supports were provided in the different courses that I was considering as well as the particular institutions that I was studying at,” says Shadia. “I think one of the biggest priorities for me when I was looking was what their disability advisory options were and how much they had supports put in place for those sorts of issues.”

Do a reconnaissance trip

Print out a map of the campus before you go and highlight the buildings you want to visit. This is also a good time to practise how you will get there. What bus or train route would you take? How long is the commute? Where can you find close, free parking? “I went to a lot of campuses and then open days,” says Shadia.

“Being able to visit campus was really important, getting to know the environment and where you’d be studying. For me, being able to choose a smaller campus was really helpful because I find it very difficult to remember where to go … And even being able to sit in on a few classes prior to studying there, seeing what the lecturers are like … you know, the way that they are presenting information and having a very clear picture of whether that course is going to be the right fit for you.”

Speak to the course coordinators and disability officers

“First of all, definitely go straight to your disability officer and get all the help that you can, all the extra arrangements and extra flexibility that you can,” says Medha. “It just means that you can have extra extensions, you can have accommodations during exams as well and all of that.”

“There was a lot of pre-planning involved,” says Shadia. “I think that this helped a lot with being able to prepare before uni started, like being able to develop an Education Inclusion Plan that clearly stated what supports I would require. And not just things like extensions but even the fact that I need to take breaks in class, that I might be using stim toys or other things to be able to regulate myself and noise-cancelling headphones.”

Don’t be afraid to self-advocate

“One of the barriers I’ve faced – I think a lot of Autistic people will relate to – is group work, specifically group presentations and group studies,” says Shadia. “I find it very difficult to be able to relate to people I don’t know very well, particularly if our communication styles are different … and this has been a frustrating aspect of my education ever since primary school. So, I think at times it’s been a bit of a difficulty in disclosing, you know, the fact that I do experience barriers with this but that I still want to collaborate with people. It’s just that my different communication style means that there will need to be adjustments made, so whether that’s just pair work as opposed to group work or being able to preassign groups, for example …

“Another thing that I’ve found very interesting is the whole process of disclosure, because research has also shown that many of us Autistic tertiary students don’t disclose our diagnosis. On the one hand, I think it can be really helpful for lecturers to know that you do have a disability and that you do require certain supports, but then, on the other hand, it also relies on the knowledge and understanding of the person who you disclose to, and I’ve definitely had mixed experiences with that.”

So, prepare to educate your educators

“I think it’s really enlightened me about how we can possibly make educational institutions more accessible for Autistic students and I’m hoping that we can have more conversations about these issues going forward, particularly given the high numbers of school issues in young Autistic people and the fact that many of us don’t go on to tertiary education or further education,” says Shadia. Educating your educators will also pave the path for future neurokin to experience greater accessibility in their tertiary studies.

Sign up to campus groups you identify with

“All throughout my life, I’ve always sort of been in minority groups,” says Medha. “I’m a woman, I’m an immigrant, I’m a person of colour, I’m queer, and then on top of that while I didn’t know I am, like, Autistic as well. So I always was a little bit weird. I never did fully fit in with sort of mainstream culture and mainstream groups … In uni I joined like, queer groups that were led by people of colour, all sorts of small minority groups, advocacy groups, those types of things.

“And that’s how I came to be the person I am and I would say that that’s how I learned how to flourish … I ended up in communities of people who are really amazing, who teach you new ways to see the world; they teach you non-conventional ways to just live your life that are a lot healthier than I feel what mainstream culture tells us to.”

Connect with your neurokin

“Another thing I found really helpful is connecting in with either current Autistic students [or] alumni and researchers who might be at university,” says Shadia. “I know that there are some very exciting developments where Autistic researchers are now developing neurodiversity projects within the universities and focus groups, for example, to help increase accessibility and understanding of Autism, so I’d be really trying to find those connections and even trying to find a mentor within the field or in the career that you wish to go into. So, for example, I’ve got a mentor in Speech Pathology and a community of Autistic speech pathologists that I keep in touch with … They’ve been there and done that so they can help me as a student navigating as well.”

Finally, give yourself a pep talk and get researching and enrolling!

Yes, there are going to be some big changes when embarking on tertiary studies but the newness will be short-lived. Tertiary education still revolves very much around timetables and structure so, soon, it will just become another – albeit very interesting and rewarding – part of your everyday routine.

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