Since becoming established as Ireland’s first Autism Friendly University in 2018, DCU have made numerous changes and accommodations to help remove barriers in day-to-day campus experiences for autistic students. The number of autistic students subsequently registered with DCU’s Disability and Learning Support Service has increased from 34 in 2018 to 89 in 2022.
The actions to date have included implementing sensory pods, social support for students, and online support. Over the past five years, DCU have worked to include the 8 principles of an Autism Friendly Campus set forth by AsIAm and DCU. They have also conducted research that has explored the experiences of Autistic students attending a third level education institution in Ireland, as well as providing peer Autism/diversity awareness alongside Autism Awareness Training to staff across DCU, and expanding Autism awareness to the general student body.
Thursday February 16th saw the launch of the Autism Friendly DCU Project Phase 2 and the launch of the recently determined 9th principle: ‘Build capacity throughout the university to support autistic employees’. This new principle will see counselling and mentoring put in place for autistic staff and training for managers. Priorities for Phase 2 include exploring the role that DCU can play in supporting Autistic people with higher support needs and/or intellectual disabilities who are seeking a university experience, as well as exploring a mentoring programme for Autistic students, alongside the development of a sensory-friendly wayfinding app. DCU will also look to create indoor escape spaces and sensory friendly spaces in the Henry Grattan building, offer workshops on independent living skills for autistic students who are living away from home, and develop a Summer Transition Programme for autistic students.
In welcoming the launch, Daire Keogh, President of DCU, said ‘We are a University of “People First” values. Autism Friendly is a great example of those values in action: Student-Focussed, Inclusive, Supportive, Open, Collaborative. DCU is proud to be the world’s first Autism Friendly University. As with all worthwhile achievements, the project has involved hard work and commitment.’
Adam Harris, the founder and CEO of AsIAm, said ‘The fact that this project has continued to sustain and grow during the pandemic shows the commitment to the project at DCU. This initiative has had an impact beyond DCU. One conversation, one university making this commitment, is setting a very important example of what is possible, it’s vitally important that autistic students are planned for and facilitated at university. The strength of the initiative has come from the fact that it is across the university’s campuses.’
Matthew Smith, a member of the Autism-Friendly project steering committee said ‘When I was younger, my autism was not identified. There are a lot of reasons why. As I understand it, the state of autism awareness and acceptance in the early 2000s wasn’t quite where it is today, At the age of nineteen, I was identified as autistic by an educational psychologist, It was the happiest day of my life. That might be a surprise for some of you to hear, but for me it explained a lot of stress in my life, I put DCU as my first choice because of their AsIAm accreditation, because I knew that AsIAm is a charity that is run by and for the autistic community, my community. And when I found that I had gotten that first choice, I was beyond thrilled’