Autism and Higher Education: Steve Silberman and Dr. Magda Mostafa

AsIAm recently hosted an informal discussion for autism and higher education. The session began with Robert Ward welcoming staff and guests to the session. The event allowed a chance to ask further questions of both Steve Silberman and Dr. Magda Mostafa. The session was a discussion about higher education.

Forgotten History of Autism

Steve Silberman, author of Neurotribes and keynote speaker for the conference, was the first to speak. He began by reminding attendees that by Dr. Leo Kanner originally coined the term autism, restricting the diagnosis to children. He believed it to be a form of childhood psychosis. Silberman explained that stance has since entirely changed, with diagnosis later in life being increasingly common. He commented that ‘so many bad ideas prevail’ when it comes to people on the spectrum, restricting their opportunities for higher education. Kanner, who believed autism was caused by ‘refrigerator parent’s was unimpressed by talents or special interests, describing them as cries for attention towards neglectful parents.

Silberman drew parallels between this and ABA (Applied Behavioural Analysis) hostility towards common autistic traits such as stimming as barriers to learning. He pointed to Dr. Hans Asperger’s methodology as a contrast, where special interests should be nurtured towards future careers. He rounded off by pointing out the autism self-advocacy movement was largely the result of the internet’s advent. Autistic adults communicated for the first time and soon came to the conclusion that their disability was largely due to society failing to accommodate their additional needs such as sensory overload. This was a good segue for Dr. Magda Mostafa.

Steve Silberman beginning the session

Inclusive Design

Magda, Associate Professor of Architecture in the American University of Cairo, began her talk by discussing architectural guidelines. She stressed that while no one size fits all in architecture, the current design demographic represents a small part of the population. Magda referenced Ruha Benjamin’s term ‘discriminatory design,’ noting that sensory overload largely comes from built environments. She moved on to discuss the role of architecture in creating autism friendly spaces. Fluorescent lights, bright colours and even noise from acoustics are all a result of human design.

She advised professionals not to attack so-called ‘challenging behaviour’ but question why it’s happening. In higher education, Magda argued, many of the ‘peak awareness’ generation of young autistic people are either entering third-level or the job market. She cited a parent’s concerns about lack of support for autistic adults. The mother said ‘people talk about my son as if he’s going to evaporate when he turns eighteen.’ The burden for adapting environments, Magda argued, is often placed on autistic people themselves. She closed by arguing that autism-friendly environments benefit everyone, not merely neurodivergent people.

Steve chimed in at this point to agree. He recalled being invited to Autscape by Ari Ne’eman. The space was sensory friendly and inclusive of numerous additional needs. Silberman then recalled after leaving this space to return to the city he found the noise unbearably loud and the people insincere and braggy. He elaborated on his earlier point about Kanner. He noted autism may be framed so negatively because ‘it was discovered by an industry looking for flaws in the human psyche.’

The session was attended by educational and healthcare professionals from various institutions


The floor was then open for questions. Robert Ward asked how we should convince teachers reluctant to make so many concessions for a small part of the population. Magda replied that it would help to see teaching from a less privileged perspective. Citing discriminatory design she said ‘no one has the right to move through space and services more fluidly than others.’ If we create services to benefit autistic people, she argued, they will ultimately improve everyone’s experience. Katie Quinn, our Autism Friendly Universities Coordinator, also commented that when students are well-adjusted and comfortable in the classroom, they are less likely to take up extra energy on the part of the teacher.

Adam Harris agreed and expanded on the knock-on consequences of this. Sensory friendly spaces not only benefit autistic people, but also those who suffer from migraines or who require hearing aids. He supported this by citing the Alzheimer’s Society of Ireland, whose requests for reasonable accommodations are identical to AsIAm. Adam also reminded staff that Ireland has ratified the UN Convention of the Rights of People with Disabilities. With this in mind, such accommodations are no longer optional. He ended with the comment ‘even though there’s a huge carrot, there’s still a little stick there.’

Magda also argued that lack of accommodations can have severe impacts on professional life. She recalled a case where an autism advocate went to a meeting in the World Health Organisation. The meeting room in the WHO building was in such a sensory-hostile location that the advocate was unable to speak. Steve agreed with these professional barriers and pointed out that ‘bad tactics’ for job interviews are largely autistic traits. Lack of eye contact and pausing before answering are a sign of concentration for autistic people but a indicator of inattention for neurotypicals.

At this point we ran out of time. Professionals can still contact us through our policy and training officers!

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