Many autistic people who receive a diagnosis are sent on their way with little or no community connections or links to support services. Many autistic people are also peer or self-diagnosed, this being equally valid; equitable or perhaps greater supports will be required as there may not be many, if any, external supports in place.
As autistic identity is often developed through community discussion and interaction it can be challenging for autistic people to know, or discover, ‘what it means to be autistic.’ Being able to advocate for yourself and your needs, when you have difficulty in identifying those needs within yourself, can present a barrier to engaging with mainstream services. Therefore, peer-connectivity can go a long way to help autistic individuals understand how to better advocate for themselves – particularly in situations where they are unable to have support people with them. Equitable and flexible supports; external non-autistic people or staff, internal autistic staff, or peers, family/whānau and professionals should be employed as and where required to help impart self-advocacy skills.
Learners in our survey felt that they faced challenges with self-advocacy in many aspects of their tertiary experience, including disclosing their diagnosis, accessing support from disability and student learning services, communicating their needs, and having these needs understood, in addition to accessing mental health support.
Finding and Receiving Support from Disability or Student Learning Services
Communicating Needs and Having Individual Support Needs Understood
Flexible, Easily Accessible Support Available for Mental Health Needs
Some useful questions to ask:
- Does the campus offer counselling and other health-related supports as physical health can impact significantlyon mental health? One parent wrote: “When it became clear that he needed support for his mental health, the support wasn’t there.”
- Whatorganic/peer and organisational supports are available in the community?
- Isthere an on-campus peer group for neurodivergent learners? One student mentioned that they would like “Access to communication with other disabled/autistic learners”?
Answering these questions can benefit all learners, although it might particularly benefit neurodivergent learners. In this way, a roadmap of internal and external supports can be offered to incoming learners who may benefit from these extra supports. Tying-in with International or Queer/Rainbow groups and community networks where applicable is also useful as the needs of these often-intersecting groups can be similar in nature and support can be shared.
Training is available for better understanding around autistic matters such as that offered by Altogether Autism. It is suggested that tutors and support services staff access this training and any other training available on mental health and well-being.
One survey respondent wrote that they would like to see, “Understanding of autism, neurodiversity generally and anxiety, social implications. Set up of support systems that are easy to access, information, support groups?”
You Can Support Your Learners by:
- Making sure learners have access to the full range of supports available. This includes student- tutors, dictation/note-takers, and reader/writers, etc., alongside regular scheduled access to disability support staff.
- Making recorded content available. It is important to note that autistic learners may work their best if they can tailor content reception to their own internal schedules and energy levels. Whilst this is notalways practical, any opportunity to do so could help the student with relieving stresses and/or anxieties relating to timeframes, etc.
- Making sure you are openly supportive and approachable. Ensure that your learners know the best way to approach you and make sure they have information on how to approach Student support services.
A greater understanding from you as educators goes a long way to ensuring a student feels welcome, valued, and confident to ask for help. Not all autistic folk will be formally diagnosed, and they deserve as much support and care as those who have a formal diagnosis.