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Case study: DCU’s autism-friendly campus

Dr Cat Hughes, DCU’s autism-friendly university coordinator, talks about how the project came to life and what difference it is making

Dr Cat Hughes: “One of my hopes with this initiative is that students will start to feel more comfortable in themselves about their diagnosis.”

Dr Cat Hughes: “One of my hopes with this initiative is that students will start to feel more comfortable in themselves about their diagnosis.”

 

Earlier this year, Dublin City University became the world’s first autism-friendly university. We spoke to Dr Cat Hughes, DCU’s autism-friendly university coordinator, about how the project came to life and what difference it is making.

How did you come to work in this area?

“I’ve spent years working in autism research and am on the board of an autism charity, Aspire Ireland. I got a diagnosis myself while I was in university, so I have a real understanding of the challenges that people on the spectrum might face. I also have first-hand experience of the life-changing impact that good university supports can have for autistic students.”

How did the idea to make DCU an autism-friendly campus come about?

“The initiative was started as an idea from autism charity, AsIAm. They have been doing amazing work in promoting understanding and acceptance of autism across the country. Adam Harris from AsIAm met with our university president, Brian MacCraith, and the two agreed it was an important and achievable step for DCU to take.

“From there, a huge piece of research was conducted by Dr Mary Rose Sweeney and Prof Teresa Burke, alongside AsIAm. They asked current autistic students about their experiences, they conducted a sensory audit of our three campuses and they spoke to the general staff and student population about their understanding of autism. From there, a plan of action was created for the initiative.”

Do we have figures for what percentage of the student and staff bodies are on the autism spectrum?

“It’s hard to tell, because figures are based only on students who decide to disclose their diagnosis. Generally, we would have about 50 students each year who register with our Disability and Learning Support Service, but there are certainly others who don’t feel the need to register or who may not feel comfortable speaking to anyone about their diagnosis. One of my hopes with this initiative is that students will start to feel more comfortable in themselves about their diagnosis. I hope that they’ll see how valued they are in our community.”

What are the challenges that students on the autism spectrum may face?

“It varies between students. Most would have some issues with the sensory environment. Some may be hypersensitive to lights or sounds, while others may be hyposensitive so they are under-stimulated by their environment and may find it hard to sit through a lecture.

“People on the spectrum can often have challenges around planning and getting organised, which can impact meeting deadlines, finding lecture rooms, planning meals and managing finances. It can be socially tough if other people don’t have an understanding of autism and how it may impact someone’s behaviour. Social anxiety is common so it can make it hard to chat with other students or attend student events. Equally, it can be hard to find events that are comfortable from a sensory perspective.”

On a practical level, what has it meant to make DCU an autism-friendly campus?

“We’re creating spaces that are more comfortable for autistic students. We’re bringing in sensory pods where students will be able to control their environments. As general changes are made across campus, we’re being mindful that our choices are as inclusive as possible for students on the spectrum. We’re training staff to better understand autism and challenges that students and staff may face. We’ve provided specific training around areas such as library skills and mental health. We have guidelines to help make lectures, assignments and meetings more autism-inclusive.

“Changing the culture is also about celebrating our students on the spectrum and giving them space to create the campus that best represents them. There has been fantastic engagement from staff, who really see the value in creating an inclusive environment.”