The UK’s education system is failing neurodiverse people from start to finish

A group of people in a university lecture representing neurodiverse and autistic people who universities are failing
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Autistic and other neurodiverse people’s experiences at university can often be marred by the institution and its faculty’s lack of support and understanding. So, one young autistic man is calling on the government to change that. He spoke to the Canary to express his concerns – and also to call on those involved in delivering university education to bring about change. However, there’s a broader issue here – it’s that the UK’s education system routinely fails neurodiverse people overall.

Autistic and neurodiverse people: let down by universities?

There are major challenges for autistic and neurodiverse students in UK universities. As one autistic woman wrote for the University of Bristol:

2.4% of the UK student population are diagnosed with autism, and less than 40% of these people complete their university education – meaning that they are 10 times more likely to drop out (60% vs 6.3% overall dropout rate). To put this into context, the student population of Bristol University was 20,304 for the 2019/20 year. That means 487 students have an autism diagnosis, but only 195 of us will complete our degree courses. That’s not many.

Anecdotally, autistic people’s stories of university life paint a mixed picture. Some have a positive experience. However, others tell of lack of resources, ignorance among staff, and being ostracised from “student life”. Elliot is an autistic student. He is a University College London (UCL) alumnus with an MRes in Biodiversity, Evolution & Conservation and a BSc in Biological Sciences from the University of Liverpool. Elliot discussed his experience at UCL with the Tab. He said:

The default baseline for the support they offer is just two weeks extra time for thesis writing and access to the SEN computer room. My specific needs or the course’s structure weren’t really considered in much depth.

But in order to justify why I needed longer, I had to provide evidence of how I was also switching medications around the same time.

I think UCL probably has good facilities for supporting disabled students, so long as your disability is neat and predictable. Otherwise, you need to persevere and be proactive in pushing for support beyond what they think you need

Read on...

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So, how universities support neurodiverse students can be a postcode lottery. Now, a petition is calling for change.

A petition on autism

The petition is calling for “mandatory training for university staff at all universities” in how to support autistic students. You can sign it here. It was started by Thomas Howard. He told the Canary:

I am an autistic man living in the East of England. I struggled a lot during my time in education and struggled to access the help and support I required. I remember a member of staff not knowing anything about autism or reasonable adjustments. This caused me a great deal of anxiety. However, this petition isn’t about my own experiences. My time in education has ended. Instead, I am fighting for future generations.

His experiences do chime with other autistic people’s. One participant told a study from 2019 that one of the biggest academic challenges was:

Knowing what’s expected of you. Lecturers take it for granted that you’ll understand what they’ve said or what they want, or that you’ll do something without being told to.

This isn’t an isolated issue. Over 15% of the population are neurodiverse – that’s one in seven people. Neurodiversity is an umbrella term that covers a range of conditions such as autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dyspraxia. Many neurodiverse people will experience challenges at university – if they even get to go to one. For example, one study found that “combined-type ADHD participants achieved significantly lower GCSE scores than their non-ADHD peers”. Dyslexics have a similar experience – with only 35% passing their GCSEs with grades 9-4. Then, only around 15% of autistic people in the UK are in employment. So, at all levels of education, the system is failing many neurodiverse people.

Is education failing more broadly?

Howard says that at universities, all this has to change. He told the Canary:

Some universities are doing a fantastic job at training staff and even students on neurodiversity in education. However, some are still failing to provide specialist training to all staff, and this inevitably causes problems for neurodiverse students.

So, he did his own research, speaking with university staff and students. Howard said:

I recently spoke to a lecturer who had to complete mandatory diversity and inclusion training as part of the onboarding process. They noted that neurodiversity only featured in one chapter and that the training hadn’t been comprehensive. In fact, 90% of those that I surveyed said that they want more training and support regarding neurodiversity. So, there is clearly an appetite for regular and specialist training.

However, the broader picture for neurodiverse people is that the education system from primary school upward is often not designed for them.

The rigidity of dress codes, break times and rules up to GCSE and sometimes A-Levels does not always work for neurodiverse people. Contrary to popular belief, routine is not always a good thing. Independent learning can play a crucial role in neurodiverse people’s education – but is not often allowed for. There is also still a lack of focus on support around emotional wellbeing. However, pandemic lockdowns changed a lot of this – and one study found that they actually improved the learning experience for many neurodiverse people.

‘Mass education’: failing neurodiverse people

As Dr Jill Pluquailec, senior lecturer in autism at Sheffield Hallam University, noted:

in circumstances where young people and families thrived, it was where previously restrictive features of education had changed or disappeared.

There is a lesson to be learned about how the logistics of mass education impose restrictions on young people being able to learn in the ways most conducive to their natural rhythms. It should not take a public health crisis to enable an education system to be more responsive to the needs of young people.

So, education for neurodiverse people needs to change drastically. However, Howard’s first steps are ones in the right direction. He told the Canary:

I don’t believe this is a radical step, but I do believe it is a progressive step. I’d like to see more people talking about neurodiversity in education, and I’d like to see more help and support for neurodiverse students across the UK.

The UK’s education system needs root and branch change, to make itself fit for the 21st century. How it accommodates neurodiverse people is one part of it, and a major one. Currently, it fails too many people – but Howard’s petition is a positive step in the right direction.

Featured image via Grace Media Travel – YouTube

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Get involved

  • Sign Howard’s petition here.

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