Students with autism have come forward to discuss their experiences of ableism at the University of Exeter and how lack of provisions for autism as a disability with unique requirements impacts their studies.
In November, Exeposé — along with the University Vice Chancellor, Wellbeing services, various local MPs, Guild Officers and the Disability Network — was contacted by a postgraduate student to complain about the culture of ableism at the University.
The individual, who shall remain anonymous, provided a follow-up statement to Exeposé. They discussed their hyper-sensitive hearing (a common problem for autistic people) and how the current format of lectures is not prepared to handle such issues, causing distress and anxiety for autistic students: “I reached breaking point during an online tutorial where the pain (autistics can be hyper- or hypo-sensitive to varying sensory systems) from listening to people talking, due to the software used and other participant’s variable hardware, became too much and caused an anxiety attack. When I informed my tutors of the issue, their only concern was to implement an alternative assessment (participation was being assessed) as per my ILP, yet I was informed that I must still listen to the recordings of the tutorials.”
They added that Wellbeing provided little assistance or appropriate support to address these issues, stating that, “their prime consideration was to question my headphones rather than acknowledge the struggles I faced. It is this failure to recognise the lived experience of other people that lets the University down in their treatment” of disabled people.
With regards to a culture of ableism at the University, the student commented that “the attitudes of the University has largely been that it’s my problem, and it’s up to me to resolve the issue rather than providing any adjustments as required by the 2010 Equality Act.” They also criticised the University for failing to properly recognise autism as equal to other more visible disabilities and thereby disqualifying the lived experiences of autistic students: “Ableism has become a culture in which those with differing abilities have become ignored and their struggles are not heard. This is clear from the University’s Facebook page which happily promotes other social justice issues such as Black History Month, International Women’s Day, and Trans Visibility Day to name a few, yet World Disability Day has never been acknowledged after a search of the page. It may be much clearer on the struggles of the blind, deaf, or wheelchair users, however, those with hidden ‘disabilities’ continue to stay well and truly hidden”.
Following this, Exeposé spoke to several other people about their experiences as autistic students. One such student stated that they had had largely positive experiences with the University, but that “it would be amazing if they could strategise some ways of educating the wider University community more on autism to assist the journey to rid ableism and stigma around the condition”. They added that although there are “excellent support mechanisms in place”, they felt that their struggles are not always believed and “sometimes staff approve and provide support on the basis of avoiding claims of discrimination, rather than because they genuinely believe someone is struggling”.
The same student added that they have also had similar problems of ableism with fellow students: “I frequently hear students criticising and evaluating the necessity of the support networks I receive whether that is DSA [Disabled Students’ Allowance] or exam arrangements in comparison to others they know who are ‘severely disabled.’ This is incredibly upsetting as it makes me self-conscious and insecure about my condition and less likely to tell people”. They stated that they feel this is because they “refuse to play into a stereotype simply for the sake of being supported” and so “often experience ableism on a daily basis.” They suggested that such ableism is prominent towards autistic people because it is a less visible disability: “I believe the main issue for this is that autism is an invisible disability, it is neurological and does not affect someone’s physical appearance. There is long-standing stigma and stereotyping around individuals with disabilities having to look a certain way to be recognised as disabled, and this causes a large proportion of individuals with invisible disabilities to experience ableism when in reality our struggles are just as valid and prominent as the next person’s. Appearance and how an individual presents themselves is never a true representation of what is going on inside”.
A different student added further criticism to the University’s attitude towards and provision for autistic students. They stated that, “I have found that sometimes I have struggled directly due to some of the activities put are on in class. I always ask for lecture slides to be either sent to me or put on ELE a couple days before the lecture/seminar so I can fully understand and gain a sense of structure of what will be happening in class, and some do for the first week or two. But then stop after a couple weeks, even when I chase them up for it (it is also in my ILP). I also find mainly that tutors/lecturers are not well educated in autism, especially in what it relates to in terms of education adjustments — so I need a routine and very little changes, I can’t understand verbal instructions properly.”
Sarah Henderson, a third year student, was motivated by her struggles with the University to set up a blog called I don’t look autistic, where she discusses her experiences of autism and works to reduce ableism. The site currently has several screenshots of slides from a Psychology seminar at the University of Exeter, which Sarah criticises for promoting stereotypes of autism. The seminar slides contain statements such as “Autism is defined by an absence,” which Sarah says makes autistic people seem “less than what they consider a complete human.” When speaking to Exeposé, she stated that “One of the major reasons I came to Exeter was because they advertised as having great support for autistic people, and in my first year that was true. But it has got progressively worse since then, to the point that AccessAbility were actively making my life worse. They treated us as though we were children, refused to let us talk about certain topics that were important to us, and kept blocking all attempts we made to speak to an expert about keeping us, as autistic students, safe. There was an argument between many of the autistic students and the staff where the phrase, “We just want you to treat us like human beings” was used multiple times. The University as a whole does less than the bare minimum for ensuring equal opportunity for autistic students, and so aside from a few individual staff members, there is almost nowhere you can go to access good support.”
A spokesperson for the University responded to these concerns with the following comment: “The University’s AccessAbility team provide a lot of support for neuro-diverse students. This includes pre-arrival student adviser appointments, the formation of Individual Learning Plans, and giving priority in terms of the allocation of accommodation. There is also a pre-arrival welcome day for neuro-diverse students.
“We have created a new special-focus adviser post to support students with complex needs associated with Autism Spectrum Conditions. There is also an Autism Spectrum Conditions social group, and autism mentoring funded by the Disabled Students’ Allowance. In recent years, the University has also sponsored some projects focused on autism as part of the Education Incubator which is an initiative to cultivate pedagogic innovation and collaboration. One project, in the College of Life and Environmental Sciences, sought to improve neurodiverse experiences at University by developing and deploying online training and teaching toolkits for staff. Another project, in the College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences, developed and trialled a new programme to support autistic students and members of staff on campus”.
The Guild also provided comment, stating that, “We want all students to have a great experience at Exeter and that includes ensuring that students’ experiences within and beyond the classroom are inclusive and accessible. We’re disappointed whenever we hear of students facing barriers or not being adequately supported on their course. We’re here to ensure that student feedback on this topic is raised through your Subject Chairs, Equality Reps or Student Reps in relevant University meetings to help make change happen on your course and improve your experience.”
The Guild added that it is looking to improve support for disabled pupils and will be holding forums to discuss what changes should be made: “We also know that the Guild itself can always do more, so we’re currently looking at how we make our events, activities and opportunities more accessible and would welcome any feedback and student involvement on how we can do better. We welcome students to come along to our Let’s Talk: Inclusive Societies event on Wednesday 8 December at 14:00 to be part of this wider conversation.”