What if you needed a textbook, but found the library too overwhelming to even walk into?

For students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), the décor, structure and colours of study spaces can be distracting and stressful.

A new report released by researchers at the University of Tasmania has found that higher education support services are inadequate for students with ASD, and more needs to be done to clarify the assistance available under the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).

Funded by the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE) at Curtin University, the research examined the existing supports in place within universities, the needs of students with ASD, opportunities for improvements, and the potential for funding under the NDIS.  

Project lead, University of Tasmania School of Architecture and Design Deputy Head Dr Ceridwen Owen, said a key focus of the research was the built environment, noting that many study spaces deemed appropriate for students without ASD were often overwhelming and confusing for those with the disorder.

“The built environment is not generally considered as part of the support needs of students, yet it is a substantial factor affecting the wellbeing and academic performance of students with ASD,” Dr Owen said. 

Typically students with ASD thrive in learning environments that are calm and quiet, both from an auditory and visual perspective. People who are unaware of the complexities of ASD often don’t realise that things like flickering lights, ticking clocks, patterned carpets and passing traffic can all be problematic, leaving a person with ASD feeling anxious and stressed.

“Students with ASD can also experience difficulties in ‘making sense’ of the built environment. In the same way that they need clear communication on academic expectations, they also need clarity in knowing where to go and what to do on campus. Unfortunately for students with ASD, the trend towards dynamic, interactive, multi-purpose spaces in the design of university campuses can add to their confusion and exhaustion.”

Dr Owen’s project, conducted in collaboration with colleagues Damhnat McCann from the School of Health Sciences, Dr Christopher Rayner from the Faculty of Education, Carol Devereaux and Fiona Sheehan from Disability Services, and Dr Lyndsay Quarmby from the Centre for Rural Health, incorporated photographs taken by students with ASD to highlight many of the challenges faced on campus.

“Many university staff members aren’t aware of the needs of this cohort of students and so there remain aspects of teaching and the university environment that present significant challenges for them,” Dr Owen said.

In addition to offering best practice guidance for universities in the areas of holistic support, pedagogical innovation and inclusive design solutions, the research team identified opportunities for the NDIS.

The type and scope of support available to students with ASD under the National Disability Insurance Scheme is unclear. While more research needs to be done in this area, potential opportunities include expanded peer mentoring support to address the range of academic, communication, independent living, self-management and advocacy skills, and extending transition support to encompass the whole academic pathway.

Professor Sue Trinidad, NCSEHE Director, emphasised the importance of higher education in addressing social inequality.

“The support needs of students with ASD can be complex, highly idiosyncratic and at odds with the student’s apparent capacity,” Professor Trinidad said. 

This research helps us better understand how students with ASD can be provided with tailored support services that meet their individual needs, and provide them with the same opportunities as other students undertaking higher education studies.

“There is a growing interest in the needs of higher education students with ASD and I congratulate the researchers on this important report and look forward to discussion on the findings."

A full copy of the report can be found at National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE)

April is World Autism Month and April 2 is World Autism Awareness Day. 

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About Dr Ceridwen Owen

Dr Owen is Senior Lecturer and Acting Head of the School of Architecture & Design. She teaches in design and research in the Master of Architecture and researches in the fields of sustainable architecture and inclusive design, with a particular focus on design and Autism Spectrum Disorder.

View Dr Ceridwen Owen's full researcher profile