Autistic Students: Coping With Change – Speaking at A Conference!

A couple of weeks ago, I got to speak on a panel at a conference run by UniversitiesUK about how COVID-19 is affecting the mental health of students in higher education and it was a really cool experience. So, now that the whole process and experience is over, I thought I’d write up what happened and why it felt like such a special experience.


A few months ago now, someone from UniversitiesUK contacted me after reading this blog, specifically the post I wrote about my first week back at university and doing it in the middle of a pandemic. She asked me if I would be interested in being part of the conference and speak on a panel about how to support autistic students in coping with all the changes to their education experience, drawing from both my experience of doing a BA pre-pandemic and doing an MA during the pandemic. I said yes straight away; I was excited by the idea that my experiences as an autistic person could help others, both autistic people and those in universities trying their best to support autistic students. So often – at this point in my life anyway – it feels like my Autism hinders my life, so it always feels like a big deal when it’s the cause of something good or provides me with an opportunity to have a positive impact.

Before the conference, there were a handful of online meetings where, first and foremost, I got to meet the other panelists: Jonathan Vincent (Senior Lecturer at York St John University and Autism Researcher), Eilidh Cage (Lecturer at University of Stirling and Autism Researcher), and Marc Fabri (Senior Lecturer at Leeds Beckett University, Autism Researcher, and Project Lead for IMAGE). They were all really lovely and working with them was a really positive experience for me. It was a bit of a challenge to figure out how we were going to deliver all of the information we felt was important to share without overwhelming the attendees. Between our meetings we collaborated on a powerpoint presentation and then met up again (online obviously) to refine things and make sure we weren’t missing anything.

On the morning of the panel, we met early for a quick technical rehearsal, since we were using a different platform than the one we’d been using for our meetings. All went smoothly but just as we were signing off, we got an email from Marc, letting us know that unfortunately he wouldn’t be able to be there. So there was a bit of a last minute scramble to figure out how best to share his contribution with the attendees, despite it being his field of expertise and not ours. I’m grateful that that didn’t fall to me, having no experience in the area of employability of autistic graduates.

I’ve never really done anything like this (the closest experience is probably being a guest at a conference where I briefly shared a project relevant to the talk that I’d worked on) so I admit I was pretty nervous when all the conference attendees started logging into our breakout room. But despite my anxiety, the whole thing went well, even though we did go over our allotted time. And that was with only the three of us!

It was really interactive so there were polls and questions for the attendees to respond to, plus the chat where they could ask questions, although we did have a Q&A set up for the end of the presentation. We went through the panels, taking turns to speak about what Autism is, the disclosure numbers in Higher Education, research into into how autistic people often struggle with uncertainty and change…

And then it was my turn (although I had spoken a bit during previous slides). My first slide was about my experience of how COVID-19 has affected me as an autistic student and the challenges I’ve been faced with. I’d put together what I felt were the most significant examples:

  • Increased uncertainty and anxiety – These are common and sometimes very extreme difficulties for autistic people but they have been seriously exacerbated by both the pandemic and the changes within education, which make it much harder to function at their normal level.
  • The stress of adapting to new methods of learning with no adjustment time – This, of course, will create more anxiety, potentially making it more difficult to adjust and engage.
  • A new and unfamiliar approach to practical classes when online learning is the only option – Same as above.
  • Communication challenges in online classes – Difficulty with eye contact may mean missing out on elements within the class and difficulty reading body language (as we are receiving a fraction of what we usually do when engaging with people) can make it difficult to interact in a learning environment or lead to misjudging situations, creating more anxiety, which will only make an autistic student withdraw more.
  • Navigating communication in blended classes – Personally, I had difficulty interacting with the group onsite: the picture and sound quality made it difficult to follow what was happening; the position of the camera meant I couldn’t actually see anyone’s faces, which made it extra hard to communicate when you’re already struggling with communication difficulties, such as knowing when to speak in a discussion; I could only communicate through the chat, which only my tutor could see and she obviously couldn’t spend the lesson checking it just in case I’d said something. It can be a very tricky set up. Eventually all of the online students on my course were moved to one group to avoid those problems getting in the way of an already content heavy course.
  • General lack of awareness around Autism and related difficulties heightened during this time – Autistic students are struggling much more than pre-pandemic and need more support, which often isn’t available due to a lack of understanding, while they may have been able to navigate around that pre-pandemic.

All of our strategies that have been built over time no longer apply and there has been no time to develop new ones.

My second slide was about what I’ve found to be helpful or what I would find helpful during this time, considering all of the uncertainty and anxiety. They’re actually all ideas that would be helpful generally but since many autistic students are struggling even more than usual, these things are all the more important.

  • A designated point of contact – Consistency is not only important because consistency is helpful in general for autistic people but it also means an autistic student doesn’t have to keep explaining their situation. Having a specific person to reach out to for help or support (whether academic or wellbeing) can help an autistic student to feel safer in what can be a very stressful environment. (Note: it’s definitely more beneficial if the person is generally available and accessible – not just on certain days at certain times.)
  • Sharing of information and change of plans with time to adjust – Processing information and change and the emotions those trigger can be time consuming and exhausting and so having advance warning allows you to prepare yourself according to your own strategies and also potentially getting in contact with anyone involved, i.e. tutors for the sake of awareness or support.
  • Clearly stated expectations – This reduces anxiety and the potential for miscommunications that can cost autistic students time, energy, and grades.
  • Flexibility around assessments – Where possible, the autistic student and those responsible for the assessments need to communicate and determine the student’s areas of difficulty and how to accommodate them, making sure that it really is the student’s ability that is being assessed. For example, my high anxiety results in high levels of fatigue so long exams or presentations are a struggle for me, meaning that I need breaks or the assessment is split into sections. This does, of course, depend on the type of examination.
  • Regular contact with tutors – Having a good relationship with teachers or lecturers both reduces general anxiety but also means that an autistic student will feel safe to ask for help if they need it and having semi-regular check-ins pre-empts any potential problems.
  • Understanding from staff – Having staff be open and willing to support you, even if neither of you know quite what that might look like, is a very powerful and reassuring thing.

(This wasn’t all on the slide, by the way. The headers were on the slide and the rest were my notes for expanding on those headers in order to provide as much clarity and insight as I could.)

I shared this slide with Eilidh and she described what she’d found to be helpful with autistic students, going on to share some of the research she’d done into some of the causes of autistic students dropping out of higher education (obviously done pre-COVID but still very relevant – many of those issues, such as lack of understanding, still exist regardless of the pandemic). But it was really interesting to see how much our experiences of what has been helping overlapped.

The Q&A section was a bit scary, given that I didn’t know what the questions might be and so couldn’t prepare for them. I didn’t want to say something and then realise later that it was bad advice. But it actually went okay. I got a couple of questions but there was one that really stuck out to me. One of the attendees asked me about the situation of many autistic students wanting to remain online – in environments where they were comfortable, without the anxiety of potentially confusing social interactions, not have to deal with the exhaustion that days at university can cause, and so on – even once it’s safe to return to university as normal. She wanted to know, from my experience, whether that’s a good idea. I can certainly understand that. But in the long run, personally, I don’t think it’s a good approach. Every autistic student is different, of course, and will have different needs but I think that the experience of university is a really important one. It definitely was for me. So I think it comes down to supporting these students through the process of either joining or rejoining university. Depending on the student, this could involve visits when there are as few people around as possible, one-to-one meetings with lecturers or tutors as a first step to going to classes, doing certain classes (perhaps the smaller ones) in person and doing others online in a blended set up, encouraging them to do as much as they feel able to (and depending on the student, pushing just past the point of comfort if that feels possible) but allowing them to leave if they feel it’s too much, and just slowly building up to the full experience, as the specific student feels able to. It reminds me of the Māori word, ‘Takiwātanga,’ which translates into ‘his or her own time and space’ (devised by Keri Opai). So hopefully that was a helpful answer.

It was a really, really great experience. The feedback I’ve had has been really positive and I learned a lot too; the whole experience was really rewarding. I’m so grateful to UniversitiesUK for inviting me to be a part of it. I would love to do more events like this in the future. I felt like I was actually helping people, something that’s always been important to me regardless of my Autism. And on a more personal note, having spent a lot of time feeling helpless (as well as being a person who often needs a lot of help), it was so empowering to turn something that can be so debilitating into something positive and useful.

Again, I want to extend my thanks to UniversitiesUK, Jonathan, Eilidh, and Marc (although he couldn’t be there on the day) for making my first conference such a positive experience.

The DSA Process For My Masters Degree

Since the academic year is starting up again, I thought I’d write about my experience with getting support for my Masters Degree as a disabled student. The DSA (Disabled Student Allowance) process can be very difficult so, having been through it twice now, I thought I’d share my experience. I don’t know if I’ve had a good, bad, or typical experience but I thought that simply putting the experience out there might be helpful to anyone at the beginning of this process, to give them an idea of what may happen down the line. As I’ve already said, it’s difficult and tiring but that’s not to say that I would discourage someone from applying. I was just very naive going into it the first time and was blindsided by how complicated and stressful it was; I’m lucky to have had help going through this both times. Having support from sources such as DSA can be hugely beneficial but I wouldn’t want anyone going into the application process unaware so I thought I’d share my experience as I haven’t seen many accounts of the whole process…

I wrote about my first assessment in great detail here, so I suggest reading that but I’ll also sum it up here to make sure I’m sharing the full experience in one place. So… That first assessment was a complete disaster. The assessor was perfectly nice but when we got to discussing what support DSA was willing to offer me, it went downhill fast. They would offer me a laptop, but not one with an operating system required to run the programs I needed for my course because apparently that was a course specific need rather than a disability specific need despite the fact that I – a disabled student – needed them to do my course. They wouldn’t offer me any travel support towards commuting because I’d ‘chosen’ to live at home when I actually had to live at home because of my disabilities. And they have no direct contact with the universities themselves so they couldn’t offer any support through them. So, essentially, they weren’t going to offer me anything because my needs didn’t fit their guidelines, because my disability didn’t fit with their idea of disability. It was hugely frustrating and distressing and I left in tears. I felt completely let down and abandoned.

By the end of the assessment, I was so utterly distressed that the assessor told us that we could appeal, which we did. The second assessment was with a different person, a really lovely woman called Rebecca, and was much longer and in much more depth. We went through everything again in minute detail: from the necessary computer specifications to the exact details of an average university day’s travel. She went through all the possibilities and all the potential outcomes, as well as the potential roadblocks and the reasonings behind them. It was a lot of information but I did leave feeling more hopeful; I really felt like she was on the case, like she was really committed to helping me get as much support as possible. Her report went through several different people before reaching a senior SFE (Student Finance England). It was initially rejected but then, when we provided them with documentation proving I receive PIP (Personal Independence Payment), they changed their minds and granted me a new laptop, software and apps to help with my lectures, independent study, and mental health, and mentoring through the National Autistic Society (although it seems that, due to the pandemic, this service no longer exists). I didn’t get any support for the travel but I’m grateful for what I did get, plus the travel costs haven’t exactly been an issue over the last few months… From that second assessment, it was four months before I received the support I was awarded.

In my experience, the whole DSA process is very slow. It was slow when I went through it during my Bachelor’s Degree and it’s been even slower this time, presumably due to the pandemic. I started this process in January – much later than intended but my mental health was so bad that I couldn’t handle the in person assessment – and didn’t get the equipment until June. Then the laptop that arrived wasn’t the right one and so we had to spend another two weeks – and a somewhat ridiculous amount of emails proving that it was in fact the wrong one – organising the swap, insuring that I got the one that my DSA assessment had determined I needed. A couple of weeks later, the new laptop arrived but setting it up took much longer than it should have. This was due to how the people who’d previously worked on my laptop had set it up, making the transfer of all my files much more complicated and messy. It’s still not as sorted as I would like it to be but it is functional.

Factoring in all of this, had I been doing my Masters in one year rather than two, I would’ve had this equipment for less than a semester before I finished the course. Yes, this was affected by the pandemic, problems with the university Autism support person, and the late start in pursuing DSA but that was due to the reasons I was in need of support so it’s not the most efficient system in that regard: what happens if you’re too disabled by your disability to seek help?

The laptop and software that DSA have provided me with has been invaluable, especially since my laptop was dying a slow death around the time I received the new one. We didn’t get everything we were hoping for but it’s definitely better to have it than to not. So, having now been through this twice, I thought I’d offer some tips that would’ve been helpful to me before going through the process…

  • If you disagree with part or all of the final assessment, ask to talk to someone else – It’s not something you’re necessarily made aware of when you have the assessment but I was so distressed by the end of the assessment that the assessor told us we could appeal. My second assessment yielded quite different results than the first one so it’s definitely worth asking if you feel that you haven’t been heard or fully supported.
  • Ask what kind of documents act as proof of a need for support – The earlier you find out what paperwork might help your case, the quicker the process will go. We, unfortunately, didn’t know that the PIP documentation was helpful and the whole thing may not have taken so long if we had.
  • Take someone with you as it can be overwhelming and tiring – These assessments can go on for hours and there’s a lot of information to both give and receive. Plus, it can be a pretty emotional experience so having someone with you can make the whole thing easier; you have someone to lean on and two pairs of ears to take everything in.
  • Ask for everything that you would find helpful – You might not get it all but you definitely won’t get it if you don’t ask and hopefully you’ll get some of it. It’s also always worth asking what you’re potentially entitled to because there may be things you aren’t aware of that could be helpful.
  • If you’re told something isn’t possible, ask why – The assessors can’t know every relevant question to ask and you can’t know every relevant piece of information to give so if they tell you something isn’t possible or available, it’s worth asking why because you may have some information or some paperwork that changes the situation and what support you can get.

I hope this post is helpful for anyone considering or going through the process. I hope I haven’t made it sound too scary. I really do recommend it but I wouldn’t want anyone to be unaware of how difficult and stressful it can be. You deserve to get the support you need and I only want to make that easier, if only by arming you with information and advice. So, if you’re going through it, I wish you the best of luck and I’m rooting for you.