Dublin City University (DCU) was recognised as the world’s first autism-friendly university by autism advocacy charity AsIAm at an announcement attended by President Michael D Higgins, patron of the organisation.

A detailed research undertaking

The designation marks the completion of an extensive research project spanning 18 months, led by principal investigator Dr Mary Rose Sweeney in collaboration with Prof Teresa Burke of DCU’s School of Nursing and Human Sciences; as well as AsIAm and Specialisterne Ireland, a support and recruitment agency for people with autism.

The findings of the project show that students with autism in third level can often struggle settling in and adapting to life at university in comparison to their peers. Issues such as discomfort in noisy environments, loneliness, schedule management problems and social/group work anxiety were cited in the research.

Eight principles

The AsIAm autism-friendly university designation is achieved by addressing eight principles, which were established as part of the research study.

The principles include implementing complementary academic and social supports as well as supports in areas such as: communication and socialisation, provision of quiet spaces or quiet times at events, life skills, navigation of the physical campus, and securing internships and employment.

Autism-specific training and awareness among DCU academic and support staff as well as the general student body, including class representatives and student ambassadors, will be increased.

Sweeney said the initiative would “enhance the experiences of students with autism while at DCU and help them to transition successfully to employment or further studies”.

CEO of AsIAm, Adam Harris, said the project was well timed as there are more students with autism exiting the school system than ever before. “It is vital that higher education and indeed the adult world become more accessible and inclusive of the autism community.

He added: “Universities which attain autism-friendly status are understanding of the needs of autistic students, open to making adaptations to be more accessible, and have a positive, celebratory culture towards autism.”

Harris noted that institutions that achieve the designation in future “will not only ensure autistic students can thrive while studying, but also serve as a springboard to employment opportunities after study”.

Commenting on the designation, DCU president Prof Brian MacCraith said it was a “key milestone for the university” and a welcome recognition of its commitment to educational opportunity and social inclusion.

“In particular, it reflects DCU’s core commitment to provide opportunities and a supportive environment to groups that are underrepresented in our education system. In establishing the concept and underpinning principles of an autism-friendly university in conjunction with AsIAm, we hope to provide the blueprint for others to follow and that this will become a global movement.”

DCU campus. Image: Marie L/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Ellen Tannam

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