Variability in support services for tertiary students with autism – a personal and professional perspective

December 22, 2017

Charlotte West

Christchurch clinical psychologist Charlotte West has first-hand experience of autism with three sons on the autism spectrum. She writes about that and the challenges her clients face.

Services for children and adolescents on the autism spectrum in Canterbury have increased greatly over the past few years, but there is still great variability in services for autistic adults.

Clients are often referred to a clinical psychologist by their doctors or by the Canterbury District Health Board.

They present with a range of difficulties: most often depression or different forms of anxiety.

Some are survivors of sexual abuse while others are tertiary students who struggle with their courses.

Over the past few years I’ve met a number of students who feel so overwhelmed by their studies and university life that they choose to withdraw from their studies.

I see them at their most vulnerable, feeling alone and believing they have failed.

Their sense of failure isn’t restricted to academic subjects, but includes managing the demands of social interaction, time management, and self-organisation all of which are important for students to accomplish as they move into tertiary study.

When students who have a diagnosed disability attend tertiary institutions in New Zealand, they can access help with their learning through support services at each institution.

Usually an individual support plan, outlining the specific unique challenges and needs of each student, is drawn up.

“However collaborative preparation of an individual learning support plan requires the student to have good self-knowledge.  In my experience this is often challenging for autistic student”

This plan is given to teaching staff at the beginning of each academic year, to explain their students’ differences.

It allows them to develop a “reasonable accommodation”, a kind of “workaround” permitting assessment of learning which meets requirements for the course while recognising the student’s difficulties.

“Reasonable accommodation” for disabilities is mandated in the Human Rights Act (1993).

These support plans should include full details of the way each student’s autism impacts their ability to succeed, including – difficulties with social communication. Individual strengths should also be included in the plan. The individual learning plans should also accurately describe the student.

The university’s Disability Support Services (DSS) team explained that lecturers are given a comprehensive research-based reading selection to help their understanding of autism.

Each lecturer should have had some idea of all their student’s difficulties.

It’s become personal now. I have three sons, who are 27, 25 and 19 years, all with autism, and all with unique strengths and challenges.

They remind me that if you meet one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.

This understanding is basic to those who work in the field of autism.

My youngest son, after a schooling experience which allowed him to flourish, set off to university bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.

My heart sinks as I watch him struggle with the very things some of my clients have had to contend with, losing confidence and hope.

His learning support plan is very similar to the plans of other students I’ve worked with. I don’t see him accurately reflected in the plan.

Despite the best intentions of the DSS, the core characteristics of autism as they impact on my son’s functional skills are only partially detailed.

This led me to explore some of the other tertiary institutions in Canterbury.

Ara, which is our local polytechnic, has to my mind the most comprehensive information on their website.

It explains how students are supported, the kinds of disabilities which can be assisted, and information about many different learning needs. It includes a Melbourne University document about transitioning to tertiary studies, which I think is very good.

Ara uses a similar format for an individual Access Plan as Canterbury University does for their Learning Support Plan, drawing up a description of strengths and disability-related needs, and lists the supports that will be put in place. This is then sent to the student’s lecturers.

Lincoln University produces a one-page summary of autism and functional skills impacted, which is easy to read and absorb.

In addition each student has an individual Learning Support Plan.  Both are given to the teaching staff to raise awareness of their students’ needs.

Each individual has a time-tabled, regular meeting with their support staff, for difficulties to be addressed and supportive connection.

Christine Brennan, Ara Disability Service co-ordinator, told me that Disability Service staff from the Canterbury tertiary institutions “collaborate with each other with a goal of having some consistency of approach and sharing good practice ideas.”

They all use a shared Code of Practice to help them do this.

“This communication across disability support teams in tertiary institutions is common both regionally and nationally.”

However collaborative preparation of an individual learning support plan requires the student to have good self-knowledge. In my experience this is often challenging for autistic students.

My clients often have difficulty recognising or describing their feelings or challenges they experience.

They lack the confidence to approach teaching staff to discuss their difficulty. I think information should be sought from multiple sources, including parents or other professionals involved with the student.

As a clinician and a parent, my dream would be to see all tertiary institutions deliver a standardised disability support service.

This would involve respect for, and reference to the Human Rights Act, and the right of all students to access the curriculum.

Recommendations for appropriate “workarounds” would be made when needed, to aid students’ learning and assessments.

Since many people with autism cannot initiate meetings or ask for help, regular meeting times with these students would be set up with them, to help identify the support needed to help each student succeed.

I’d like us to loudly celebrate those institutions which excel in their support for our students and simultaneously to keep asking for change where it’s needed.

Charlotte West is a Christchurch-based registered clinical psychologist with a specialty in working with adults who have Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Information regarding transition to tertiary studies:

Guidelines to reasonable accommodations: – guidelines for accommodation at tertiary level  Ako Aotearoa

Other useful links this is an American-based college programme that regularly sends out newsletters with useful information about transitioning following secondary school. It’s good to have a look at even if you’re not intending to use their programme.

and as mentioned in the article, Ara’s information sheet about Autism Spectrum and study:


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




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