Supporting Transition from School to University
Accessing higher education is a very real possibility for many young people on the autism spectrum, particularly those with Asperger’s Syndrome.
The following provides an overview of things to consider as part of the planning process:
It is the same for young men and women on the spectrum. The experience of attending university is full of possibilities and experiences that will, for most young people, be new and exciting.
It is therefore important to acknowledge that obtaining a university place is a positive achievement that is to be celebrated. With good planning and consideration to what might be challenging and anxiety provoking individuals can have a very successful experience.
University life is a complicated mix of academic and social challenge. The social challenge is not just the preserve of the student union. Increasingly there is an emphasis on collaborative and project based learning that requires a high degree of co-operation and negotiation with other people. It may sound obvious but it is really important to check out how courses are structured and taught. A high level of social expectation in the learning environment should not exclude people on the spectrum but it does signal a need for preparation.
For many young people going to university is the first time they will live out with the parental home. Some important considerations are:
- Nature and type of accommodation that would be most suitable. Living in halls can be a good solution but they are full of very excited young people most of whom are living away from home for the first time. You should therefore visit and check out accommodation, rules of living, expectations etc. in advance.
- Money Management - this can be an issue. Think about budgeting skills. Are there any costs associated with the course of study e.g. will the person need specific equipment? Are they clear about what books are core and are essential and those which would be better accessed from the library or bought second hand?
- Does the individual have a specific interest? Are there any clubs or organisations that would provide them with a social network?
- Travel and Orientation - many campuses are widespread. How able is the person to cope with public transport, orientate round new environments and importantly do they have strategies for asking for assistance if needed?
There are a number of other areas to think about in the transition to university and in the early stages. These include:
- What does university represent/mean? It is helpful to check out the individual’s understanding and expectations of university. They may have a very fixed idea.
- Seeing yourself in university, changing your self-image: We know that people on the spectrum often find it challenging to think futuristically and to generate new and different concepts of unfamiliar experiences. Thinking differently about known experiences can also be problematic. Making the shift from a school/college student to a university student requires a great deal of self-insight and a shift in how you see yourself. People are likely to need support to understand how they might need to begin to think about themselves in a different way.
- What are the expectations? The shift in expectation from school to university is quite dramatic. Of course, universities are aware of this and so they have “Freshers” weeks and all sorts of opportunities for new students to start to get their head around what is required. Perhaps the biggest shift is in the level of direction that is given. There is a high demand in terms of self-organisation and planning. Again, we know these may be problematic for people on the spectrum so checking out and working on skills in this area well in advance of the transition is important.
The drilling down of this into the fine detail can be important, we often think of the obvious things like orientation around the campus but there are other issues like how to address staff. In school it is the norm to use Sir or Miss and to engage with adults in a fairly formal way. At university this is very different and the relationship is usually less formal.
As with secondary school or college students at university are likely to be in multiple environments for a wide range of purposes.
Some things to consider are:
- Orientation: Most universities will offer this as a matter of course. It is just important to ensure all the bases are covered.
- Sensory Processing: A degree of sensitivity to sensory stimuli and sensory processing issues appear to be common in people on the spectrum. The impact can range from annoying and anxiety provoking to debilitating. Advance planning is important. Identifying potential issues can help to develop appropriate responses and strategies from de-sensitivity to alternative coping methods
- As well as multiple academic environments, individuals are likely to be in multiple social environments so it is important to include these in familiarisation and orientation visits.
- Thinking about expectation is important in relation to the different contexts the student will be in. The behaviour required to participate in a lab is different to that of a tutorial to that of a large lecture theatre.
In addition to the very concrete things to consider in relation to transition to university, we need to also consider personal factors:
- Capacity to cope with change: Some people on the spectrum seem to cope well with major change but are very distressed by minor change. It is important to reflect on past transitions and to talk with the young person about what it is that is most concerning for them.
- All individuals have strengths and assets as well as things they find difficult. It is important to support the person in understanding their personal strengths and needs so they can identify when they may need help. Conversely people can find it difficult to make connections and to recognise that they have existing skills that could be applied to a new situation.
- Student welfare is a concern within all universities. They often have well established advisory services. There are also Disability Advisors based within the university. Some people on the spectrum do not wish to be identified as having a disability and that is of course their right. Planning for access to support in relation to wellbeing where proactive and remedial support can be accessed is a very important aspect of transition planning.
We have alluded to the fact that some individuals prefer not to share their diagnosis. That is of course the individual’s right to do so. In terms of supporting the transition it is advisable to work through the perceived benefits and drawbacks of the decision to share or not to share. Accessibility of teaching and the responsibility to make reasonable adjustments to promote access are part of the legislative requirements placed on universities. Having more knowledge of the legal context in relation to disability can help people arrive at their own informed decision.
Many people on the spectrum can and do have successful university careers. The important thing in transition planning is that the people supporting the transition should know the young person well and should be open to listening to what is concerning for them. It is also helpful for those supporting the transition to have a good knowledge of contemporary university life and to be as informed about the chosen course of study as possible.