5 things Autistic students want you to know

Autistic students are valuable members of the university community who deserve respect, support, and opportunities to thrive. 
Friday 5 April 2024

It's World Autism Understanding Week and we asked Victoria University (VU) Accessibility Services Officer, Maria Vardakis, and Sara*, an autistic person studying at VU, five things people working and studying in higher education can do to improve academic experiences for people who are on the autism spectrum.

1. Not everyone who is Autistic is the same (it’s a spectrum)  

About 675,000 Australians are Autistic and each person has different strengths, interests, challenges, and aspiration. Trying to ‘fit in’, navigate stereotypes and educate students and teachers about what autism is, and isn’t, can be exhausting.

“As an accessibility liaison officer at VU, I wish people recognised that autism presents differently in each person,” Ms Vardakis said.

"Autism doesn't mean they fit into a neat stereotype or exhibit the same behaviours as another student with autism.”

One way students, teachers and support staff can be supportive is to speak with students about what they can do to make them feel more comfortable. Asking how individuals with autism would like to be referred to in addition to preferred names and pronouns is an easy place to start.

People could also ask the individual, whether they prefer being referred to as an Autistic person, a person on the autism spectrum or a person with autism,” Sara said.  

"I like to be referred to as an Autistic person because my autism defines who I am.”

The goal is to make the autism community feel validated, understood and respected, and reduce the need for masking which can cause ongoing harm.

2. Neurodiversity is needed in our society  

It’s never too late to deepen your understanding of neurodivergence and how to create more neuro-inclusive cultures, in education and work. There have always been neurodiverse individuals in our community, and now thanks to greater acceptance and better diagnosis methods, more individuals have started to openly identify.

While it’s commonly stated that difference is necessary for us as a human race to grow and learn, more work still needs to be done to highlight and acknowledge the unique strengths and talents neurodiverse individuals possess.

It’s important to be inclusive of neurodiverse people (such as myself) because when I feel included and feel that my autism is recognised, I’m more likely to share my experiences as an Autistic person, and therefore educate society,” Sara said. 

Watch this video by VU Accessibility Officer, Mikki Moore about the importance of neurodivergence in society.

3. We can be very dedicated and hard working in a supportive environment  

Students on the autism spectrum can achieve the same goals as Neurotypical (non- Autistic or neurodivergent) peers with the right support.

One way VU is prioritising the wellbeing of students is through Access Plans and providing counselling and accessibility services.

“Having an Access Plan has allowed me reasonable adjustments to assessments and class participation,” Sara said.

I have the option to leave class if I am too overwhelmed or overstimulated and gain extensions for exams.”  

Access Plans are available to teaching staff so tailored learning accommodations can be made on student-case basis. This initiative also removes the burden on students to explain their needs and preferences for every class. 

“Implementing flexible learning strategies and embracing diversity and inclusivity benefits everyone,” Ms Vardakis.

Understanding and accommodating these needs can make a world of difference in allowing students to thrive.”  

4. Ask us how we prefer to engage with others 

Sensory sensitivities, difficulties with social interactions, and communication differences can all impact a person's ability to navigate their academic environment comfortably. 

Autistic burnout is common but can be mitigated by students and staff practising compassion and helping to reduce expectations. Don’t be afraid to ask a simple question like: “How would you like to communicate?” 

“It’s difficult for me to process multiple and complex verbal instructions at once because I forget them easily,” Sara said.

I benefit more from written instructions or the option to take notes about the instructions because I can review them at any time.”   

Many students on the autism spectrum also experience sensitivity to light, noise, and flashing imagery. And can become overwhelmed and emotional if they feel confused or are misunderstood, even if they appear calm on the surface.  

Don’t make assumptions based on body language. Instead, always clarify with the individual about their needs and behaviours with further direct questions and offers of support. 

5. Help us overcome the challenges we face while studying 

Universities need to commit to minimising barriers for neurodivergent learners by continuously engaging with academics to ensure that the learning environment is inclusive and supportive of students with autism. 

Through education and promotion of inclusive practices and accommodations, VU is striving to create an equitable and inclusive learning space. Last year, the University launched a neurodivergent social group in partnership with the Victoria University Student Union (VUSU). 

“This group provides a safe and welcoming space for like-minded students to connect, participate in scheduled activities, and engage in both face-to-face meetups and virtual gatherings via Zoom,” Ms Vardakis said.

VU is also in the process of establishing quiet rooms specifically for the neurodivergent community.  

These rooms will be accessible to students on an as-needed basis, providing a safe environment and will be placed throughout the campus to ensure accessibility.”  

Initiatives like this aim to better understand the ways the autism community communicates, socialises, and experiences the sensory world, and meet them in the middle. 

*Name changed to respect the VU student’s anonymity. 

As an Accessibility Services Officer at Victoria University (VU), Maria Vardakis works with students with disability, illness and who are neurodivergent to ensure they can equitably access all aspects of the education experience – whether in the classroom, on placement, or in social settings – as well as graduation and career opportunities. Accessibility Services are free, safe, private, and confidential. 

Additional resources & learning 

Explore more of Aspect’s resources about  World Autism Understanding Day. 

You can find out more about Accessibility Services at Victoria University or contact  [email protected]

In 2022, VU and Aspect, Australia’s largest provider of autism-specific services and school programs, entered a partnership aimed at boosting workforce support for the estimated 1-in-40 Australians on the autism spectrum.  

As part of VU's ‘flipped campus’ model, Aspect has a permanent space at the universities’ St Albans Campus. Participants at Aspect Adult Community Services, enjoy group activities designed for individuals who are on the Autism spectrum.