Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Tuesday, 22 November 2022

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Autism

Autism Policy in Education: Discussion (Resumed)

Ms Fiona Earley:

I thank the committee for the opportunity to address it. I will give a brief outline of the DCU autism-friendly project.

In 2016, DCU declared its intention to become autism friendly after a meeting between Mr. Adam Harris of AsIAm and the then president of DCU. Between 2016 and 2018, research was conducted by Dr. Mary Rose Sweeney and AsIAm. It focused on the challenges and support needs of autistic students. A sensory audit of the physical environment from a sensory perspective was also completed. According to the findings, additional supports were most needed in the areas of communication, socialisation and managing the sensory environment of a busy campus.

The research created the eight principles of an autism-friendly university and DCU set out to implement the actions over the next three years. Since the project, the number of students disclosing an autism diagnosis has tripled. Alongside this, autistic staff began contacting the project seeking information, advice and guidance. This may indicate that autistic individuals feel more comfortable about disclosing their diagnoses now because of the ethos of the autism-friendly project and-or more autistic students are registering with DCU. A new principle was developed to establish how DCU would provide support to autistic staff.

Another key objective in this phase of the project is to address the sensory challenges of a busy and chaotic environment. Autistic students and staff described it as sensorially challenging and stated that it impacted on their ability to concentrate and socialise. Pursuant to this goal, DCU published the autism-friendly design guidelines. It is hoped that this will inform all higher education institutes' assessments and adjustments of current spaces across campus and provide guidance for future builds and retrofits. As the number of students disclosing is increasing yearly, there is a growing need for more supports and services, in particular sensory-friendly spaces, autism-specific academic and social supports, and mentorship programmes.

The early 2000s were when autism diagnoses spiked. Almost 20 years later, this "peak cohort" has progressed through primary and secondary level education. They now find themselves ready for a higher education that is sometimes unprepared for them. The autism-friendly university principles may, however, play a key role in supporting these students and staff and creating an opportunity for the more authentic inclusion of students and staff with their fellow learners and colleagues.