Securing the necessary academic and pastoral supports are critical tasks that should be high up on your to-do list if you’re on the autistic spectrum and starting your first year of college.
Transitioning from secondary to third level education environments can be as exciting as it is daunting for autistic students and their families. As you change on an educational and social level, so do your needs.
Help is nonetheless in place and it’s critical that you know whether your college can meet your requirements and where you can access those services.
In this article, we look at where you can register for support at your new college, how that help is allocated, and what kinds of services can be provided for you.
First and foremost, you will need to make your needs known to your chosen college’s Disability Services (known also as Learning Support Department).
If you indicated on your CAO form that you have a specific disability or learning difficulty, then Disability Services will be notified as soon as you accept a place, and they will get in touch with you to work out what supports they can provide. Even if you didn’t tick this box on the form, you can still access the available supports by contacting the college’s Disability Service at any stage during your studies.
You will be asked to fill out an Evidence of Disability form, outlining which condition(s) you are diagnosed with and briefly explaining how they impact on your learning. Medical evidence is also required and this may be in the form of a full medical report from your Local Health Office or a letter from your GP. If your chosen college is a registered partner with the Disability Access Route to Education (DARE) programme, then you will not need to provide medical evidence in your application (a list of participating colleges can be found here).
Every college’s Disability Services operate under a very strict confidentiality policy, so don’t worry about giving away your personal medical details to them. They will need as much information as possible to tailor what supports you may or may not need during your studies.
Meeting Disability Services
During your orientation week, Disability Services will usually ask you to come into the office at an allocated time to meet with a staff member for an assessment or consultation. This typically involves their gauging and recording the practical nature of your needs and discussing what kinds of services and supports they can provide for you, such as one-to-one tuition, notetaking or access to assistive technology.
It is advisable to bring your parent(s) or guardian(s) along with you to these meetings. A lot of information is going to be exchanged between you and the support worker, so it’s a good idea to have someone else who knows your condition well to clarify and elaborate your individual needs there too.
Within your department of study (or ‘owning school,’ if you’re doing a joint honours pathway), you’ll be assigned a liaison or Disability Officer. This will normally be a faculty member who will be able to inform you about what your department or school can do from their end to help you. Stay in regular contact with this person throughout your time at college. They will make themselves known to you during your orientation through either an introductory email or by arranging an appointment. Alternatively, you can always check out your School’s website and see who it is or ask their admissions office.
Knowing what supports are available
It’s absolutely essential that you and your family are as knowledgeable as possible about what your college’s Disability Services can do for you. What kinds of supports and their availability will vary from campus to campus, but regular methods of help include:
- Access to Assistive Technology;
- Notetakers and personal scribes;
- One-to-one learning support and study skills tuition;
- Copies of lecturer’s notes and PowerPoint slides;
- Time extensions for assignment deadlines and exams.
You can view a comprehensive list of what common supports are available from colleges around Ireland at the Association of Higher Education Access and Disability’s (AHEAD) website.
Some colleges’ Disability Services will also offer pastoral supports that are supplementary to academic, often by way of organised social groups for fellow students with similar conditions in the afternoons and evenings during the week. These are entirely voluntary and you’re under no obligation to attend, but many autistic students, especially freshers, find them to be a valuable resource for making a successful transition into third level and finding friends. Groups meet at an assigned place on campus at a particular time and may or may not have someone from Disability Services present to make introductions at the first meetings.