University can be a challenging experience for students. But for almost two and a half thousand(1) students with autism spectrum conditions within each year’s intake, it can be especially tough. The condition can bring additional difficulties – from managing their own time, dealing with changes in a course schedule, to coping with social interaction. These challenges see higher drop-out rates amongst students with autism(2). However, with support or inclusive practice, students with autism can excel in higher education.
The National Autistic Society (NAS) student support service gives students with autism the opportunity to realise their academic potential. Working with leading universities, it provides specialist mentor support to help students overcome barriers to learning. With funding from the Autism Innovation Fund (Department of Health), the NAS trialled Brain in Hand technology, to explore how it could enhance the service they offer to students.
One of the students selected to take part in this trial is Olivia, who has an autism spectrum condition. Studying Pharmacology at a leading London University, she is a highly intelligent and conscientious student but issues related to her condition led to her needing to repeat her second year.
Olivia gets very anxious leaving the house and her heightened sensitivity to light and sound makes attending university at times overwhelming. Her NAS mentor helps her to cope. They support her to manage her workload, take notes in lectures, prompt her to take breaks and provide reassurance and clarification.
Olivia took to Brain in Hand instantly. When feeling anxious she finds it particularly hard to think clearly and so having coping strategies from Brain in Hand on her phone is invaluable. She can access solutions to address a range of situations she finds stressful, including when her taxi is late, during revision, or when she has a migraine. She now uses it within the university day and also in her home life. Brain in Hand means Olivia can now utilise strategies developed with her mentor at those times when her mentor isn’t with her.
Olivia and her mentor track her anxiety levels through the traffic light system on Brain in Hand. She can ‘press red’ when feeling highly anxious, which she finds reassuring as she knows that support is there. She can have difficulty finding the words to ask for help but using Brain in Hand allows her to convey her need for support at the touch of a button.
This system has also helped her sessions with her mentor. Discussing why she has ‘pressed red’, they are able to identify new issues. For example, when it became clear that Olivia gets anxious in social conversations but finds it hard to leave them, her mentor was able to support her to create new strategies for managing this.
Olivia has used Brain in Hand to help her through a variety of situations. She says it has helped her to, “cope with exam stress, revision and interaction with students”. She is able to review her progress on a secure website and see how her anxiety levels have been reduced. But most importantly, having the right support at the right time, Olivia has taken her exams, submitted work for which she has achieved very good grades and completed her second year.
Olivia is one of many students helped during the trial and is a good example of how technology, used in conjunction with appropriate support, can help the student to be more independent and enhance the service offered by the supporting mentors.