Supporting students on the autism spectrum in the university environment

December 19, 2017

The New Zealand Autism Spectrum Disorder guidelines state, writes Surrey Jackson, that “further education should be an option for all people, regardless of ability or disability”.

Surrey Jackson

FORMALISED SERVICES for New Zealand university students on the autism spectrum are limited and little has been written on the area of supporting them despite what is available overseas.

For example, some colleges in the United States have specialised autism programmes.

Research on the higher educational achievements of people on the spectrum is also very limited and no research can be found from a New Zealand perspective. We also do not have any statistics available that highlights the number of individuals on the spectrum studying in tertiary institutions in New Zealand.

There are a number of challenges to university study for people with autism; difficulties with social interaction, functioning and sensory issues can create barriers to achievement.

In addition the very nature of the university setting can exacerbate these issues. Universities lack the structure and routine of other educational settings and they also lack clear instructions as to what students should do and when they should do it.

For example when you start university, no one informs you that you may need to create your own timetable, look up required books yourself and find out when and where your own exams are. Often these requirements are learned through trial and error as well as observation of peers (something that universities heavily rely on).

A second key challenge to higher education is a lack of contact with staff members or people in a position to be able to help. For undergraduate students contact with staff is rare.

There may be one lecturer for a class of several hundred first year students meaning the odds are that you will never speak to the people that teach you (unless you continue on to graduate study where class sizes are much smaller). In addition lecturers often change and papers can be co-taught and with multiple staff running one course it can be difficult to develop a relationship.

Access to tutors is likely to be more consistent but again busy classes and short contact time can leave students little chance to build relationships of support.

Internal Support Models

However, there are support options available within universities. Student Services departments at universities have disability services who work closely with students on the spectrum to provide practical help and support.

Provided services can include the use of reader/writers as well as organising allowances such as extra time for examinations and sitting exams in private rooms. Barriers to receiving these kinds of assistance include the possibility that formal diagnosis might be required and the necessity that students must be their own advocates and arrange initial meetings with support services.

In addition to formalised disability services, it is recommended that students take full advantage of any other help services offered by the university or individual course (research has shown that services offered can often be under-utilised by people with autism due to difficulties with self-advocacy ( It can be very worthwhile approaching staff at the beginning of the courses to discuss possible support strategies. These may include asking permission to voice record lectures, requesting that written information about what the course entails be given as early as possible, requesting permission to leave the room as and when required during tutorials, and organising a specific contact person for the remainder of that course.

During the course of any one semester, university staff will deal with students that have fallen ill, have grievances or other issues and there are systems in place to provide allowances for students that are struggling for whatever reason and staff can direct students to the proper channels to obtain these. In addition, many courses may have extra resources such as the provision of video recorded lectures that students may not be aware they can access.

External Support Models

As outlined in the Autism Spectrum Disorder guideline, the use of Student Support Services may need to be combined with support from outside sources. Something that has been successfully used in American universities is the use of peer mentors.

Peer mentors are fellow students who provide social role modelling. Occasionally peer mentors are students on the spectrum who are further into their studies. There are no existing peer mentor systems that can be found in New Zealand universities so any arrangement would have to be set up privately.

Another method of obtaining private help is to hire a therapist to work specifically with a student. Joshua Levine is a Board Certified Behaviour Analyst who has worked privately with university students with Asperger’s syndrome in New Zealand. Previous work that Joshua carried out successfully includes developing schedules with students and weekly meetings to help them stay on top of their course work; social  skills training in social settings (e.g. club groups); and work place based support, all of which was faded out over the student’s first year of university.

In short, the university environment presents a number of very real challenges. Whilst specialised support is limited, planning and utilising all available support services can aid success.

  • This article first appeared in the Altogether Autism Journal Autumn 2014.
  • Surrey Jackson is a registered psychologist for Explore Specialist Advice NZ which provides specialised behaviour support services to disabled people of all ages, their families/whānau and their support networks.

References and Further Reading

Asperger Centre. (2014). College Experience for Student’s with Autism. Retrieved from

Asperger Manitoba (2012). Supporting College Stu- dents with Asperger’s Syndrome. Retrieved from

Navigating College (2011). A Handbook on Self Advocacy Written for Autistic Students from Autistic Adults. Retrieved from

Nevill, R.E.A. & White, S.W. (2011). College students’ openness toward autism spectrum disorders: Im- proving peer acceptance. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 41, 1619-1628.

Ministries of Health and Education. (2016). New Zealand Autism Spectrum Disorder Guideline. Wellington, New Zealand: Ministry of Health.


This article first appeared in the Altogether Autism Journal Issue 1, 2018.



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