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Student Case Studies: Autism

Look at these scenarios illustrating how a student’s needs can be impacted by their university experience.

Daniel

Daniel is a 29 year old student with autism and severe asthma studying on a game design course. He has a particular interest in 3D game design and astronomy.

Read Daniel’s case study

Daniel attended a specialist school for autistic children and since leaving school at 17 he has led a sheltered life with day to day care provided by first his mother and latterly his partner. Due to his asthma, which is impacted by both physical activity and anxiety, Daniel has had limited social interaction since leaving school, though he has, on the advice of a tutor, gained some experience of a workplace in the months leading up to attending University.  

Daniel has picked this course as it matches his interests and also so that he could avoid examinations and lots of large group interactions that might take place on other courses. The University is also local to Daniel’s home so he can access the course and live at home where he has his support in place and feels the most comfortable. Daniel has spoken to his course tutor and the university Disability Service about his support needs and he has also accessed some specialist mentoring and specialist one to one study skills support so that he has a confidential space to discuss his work and any additional issues he may be facing.

Daniel attends most teaching activity in the first term and seems to be progressing well, though with limited interaction outside of formal lessons. During his second term, Daniel has a task of completing a 2,000 word portfolio of written work, a project and a presentation which all need to be submitted just prior to the Easter break. He has been working long hours on this, sometimes at the expense of his attendance and he has researched the area in great depth. As the deadline nears, Daniel has a conversation with his course tutor who is concerned about his attendance and progress. Daniel gets very anxious about the discussion in the meeting and when asked about progress with his portfolio feels that he is failing and is in trouble in some way. He had felt he was following the assignment brief but is now not sure. This impacts his physical health and anxiety and Daniel fails to attend university for the next two weeks. 

Having missed several mentoring sessions, Daniel’s specialist mentor contacts him to discuss Daniel’s situation. They agree to meet again to discuss this further and to come up with a plan. During the next mentoring session, it transpires that Daniel is still developing his 3D project and has gone into significant depth with this, focussing on his passion for astronomy. But he has not moved on from this. He has done some of the presentation work via social media but he has yet to make a start on his portfolio and time is running out. His mentor works with him and his study skills tutor, to look at his project alongside the course brief. He has done far more than the brief required so they discuss how they can bring it in line with this. A plan is put in place to first complete the group project, before moving on to the portfolio. A meeting is booked with Daniel’s course tutor to discuss what was required in the portfolio. Having spoken to the mentor, the course tutor first asks Daniel how the project and group task had gone and reassured him that this sounded like good work. They agree that Daniel can now leave these andmove on to the next stage of his work. The tutor breaks the task down into sections for Daniel to follow, including providing a written plan and with the help of the tutor and his mentor, Daniel completes and submits the portfolio before the deadline.

Pause for thought

  • What, if anything, might tutors have done to support Daniel differently when he first arrived at University?
  • How might you create the environment within which Daniel and other students would feel comfortable disclosing the anxieties and difficulties they face?
  • What changes to your teaching could you introduce to support Daniel in playing a full part in your course?

Reflecting on Daniel’s situation, consider:

  • What emotional impact or stress is Daniel experiencing?
  • How might the issue with Daniel’s assessed work have been avoided?
  • Whether Daniel’s tutors and lecturers might face any challenges in providing appropriate support, and how they might access support and guidance to enhance their own practice
  • Is Daniel accessing all the resources and support available to him and if not, what are the reasons for this? 
  • How might University-wide policy and procedures have helped to encourage Daniel to disclose his concerns at an earlier stage?
  • Where Daniel might be signposted in order to access additional support and guidance on an ongoing basis, as they feel it is needed

Anwar

Anwar is a student with autism studying for a Degree in Modern History.

Read Anwar’s case study

When he attended a university Open Day, Anwar and his parents made sure to meet the Accessibility Team who ensure students with disabilities and medical conditions get the support and advice that they need. They discussed Anwar’s concerns with attending University and asked what arrangements could be put in place and what they needed to do in terms of getting everything ready for Anwar’s studies. They were advised to apply for relevant funding and to discuss the course requirements with the history tutors. Anwar was also told about a summer school run by the Accessibility Team to help autistic students to get a flavour of university of life before attending later in the summer.

Anwar applied for funding and had a specialist Needs Assessment and was awarded some specialist mentoring and assistive technology support via this. Anwar also attended a three day “Autism Summer School” before arriving at University which helped him to get a feel for University and bond with other students facing similar concerns. 

One of the main tools Anwar uses on a day to day basis is his “Brain in Hand” app that enables him to organise his day and check in with strategies that he has programmed in in advance with the help of a professional Brain in Hand trainer. He can also trigger contact from a professional if he feels overly anxious and in danger of a meltdown. This helps Anwar in his first few weeks at University in particular and though apprehensive, Anwar attends most of Induction Week and his first week of academic lessons.

After a month, Anwar’s tutors have noticed that he has left certain lectures early and has also missed several tutorials and seminars. He has also yet to speak to his Personal Academic Tutor (PAT). They contact the Accessibility Team who contact Anwar and arrange a four-way meeting between his PAT, a disability advisor, Anwar and his Specialist Mentor. Anwar attends and once assured he has not done anything wrong, discloses that he has been facing some difficulties:

  • He sometimes feels overwhelmed in lectures as he turns up early in order to miss the crowds of students congregating outside beforehand but as a result he ends up surrounded by people in the lecture. Having consulted his Brain in Hand app, Anwar sometimes leaves the lecture if he feels he may be heading towards a meltdown.
  • He is also concerned about attending some of the seminars because he doesn’t know the other students in these groups and is worried that his ticks and social awkwardness may single him out. He also doesn’t really know what is expected of him in these seminars.
  • As he has only seen his Personal Academic Tutor once, when they delivered a lecture, Anwar hasn’t felt comfortable meeting with them let alone discussing his difficulties with him. He has mentioned this to his Specialist Mentor who has encouraged him to make contact, but he hasn’t.

Anwar’s tutor asks him where he would feel more comfortable in lectures and they agree that Anwar will arrive just before the start of lectures so he can sit on an end of row seat or at the back of a room. His tutor also agrees to meet Anwar weekly at an allotted time for the next few weeks to answer any concerns he has but that Anwar can also email her at other times in the week if he needs clarification of anything. She also asks Anwar if he has a friend or friends whose attendance might make it easier to attend his seminars. Anwar and his tutor agree to meet later that day so that they can go through the seminar and tutorial guidance with him so that he is clearer about what to expect. They also contact all other tutors on the course to ensure that they understand the need to prepare clear guidance for all students. 

The specialist mentor follows up this conversation with Anwar afterwards and they develop some strategies that he will use, along with his Brain in Hand app, over the coming weeks. He stresses to Anwar the importance of speaking up if he is unsure of anything in future.

The mentor, tutor, Anwar and disability advisor agree to meet up again in a month to review how effective everything has been.      

Towards the end of semester, Anwar arrives to sit his first examination since attending university. It was agreed that Anwar would sit his exam in a room with no more than eight people, but on arrival at the exam he finds that he is in a main hall with over 60 people in it. Four months ago, Anwar, who is already anxious, would have been too nervous to tell anyone about the mistake and would have tried to do his best to get through it. Thanks to all the support he has had to date and the fact his mentor and his Personal Academic Tutor have both discussed the exams and small group environment in the days running up to the exam, Anwar spoke to the invigilator who identified the mistake and ensured Anwar was taken to the correct room for his exam.

Pause for thought

  • What else might tutors have done to support Anwar differently when he first arrived at University?
  • How might you create the environment within which Anwar and other students would feel comfortable disclosing the anxieties and difficulties they face?
  • What changes to your teaching could you introduce to support Anwar in playing a full part in your course?

Reflecting on Anwar’s situation, consider:

  • What emotional impact or stress is Anwar experiencing?
  • Is Anwar accessing all the resources available to him and if not, what are the reasons for this? 
  • How might University-wide policy and procedures have helped to encourage Anwar to disclose his concerns at an earlier stage?
  • To what extent the environment is a barrier to Anwar’s participation?
  • How might the exam issue have been avoided?
  • Whether Anwar’s tutors and lecturers might face any challenges in providing appropriate support, and how they might access support and guidance to enhance their own practice
  • Where Anwar might be signposted in order to access additional support and guidance on an ongoing basis, as they feel it is needed

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