Securing the necessary academic and pastoral supports are critical tasks that should be high up on your to-do list if you are 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.
First and foremost, you will need to make your needs known to your chosen college’s Disability Service.
If you indicate 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 or conditions 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.
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.
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, note taking, or access to assistive technology.
It is advisable to bring a parent or guardian 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, you will 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:
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 are 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.
Going to university and college can be an amazing experience but it can also come with added stress and pressure such as college work, new relationships and finding work/life balance. The college counselling service exists to support you in the event you experience mental health difficulties during your studies.
Counselling provides a confidential, non-judgemental, and free student service to registered students in your college. The service is generally staffed by experienced and qualified counselling psychologists and/or psychotherapists
Differences Between Counselling and Disability Service
There are several differences between the service counselling provides and supports you may avail of in the disability service. Firstly, counselling is available to all students and does not require a diagnosis or needs assessment to avail of it.
Next, the strategies and outcomes of, for example, occupational therapy and psychotherapy are different. Occupational therapists exist to empower you in your course of studies by measuring your access needs against your study environment and sometimes by developing skills to adapt, such as time management. While issues such as organisation and keeping up with coursework may impact mental health, the disability service primarily focuses on the practical side of your time in college.
Psychotherapists on the other hand, provide counselling to reduce distress and help people struggling with emotional or mental health problems. They can help students dealing with relationship problems, trauma, eating disorders, substance abuse, parenting issues, bereavement or the effects of a chronic illness.
Most colleges will have a Student Health Centre, which provides medical care on campus. They provide free consultations and certain health services (e.g. blood tests, vaccinations, STI tests) at a reduced cost. The Student Health centre is NOT to be considered as a substitute for your GP and any students with ongoing chronic health conditions should consider their GP the primary point of reference.
Nevertheless, the college Health Centre is a good point of contact for sudden illnesses, especially if you’re living away from home. All you need to see a professional from the health service is making an appointment on your college’s website.
Take a look at Laoċín 5 minute video, where he discusses the supports he receives and other supports available for autistic students in DCU. He recommends registering with the Disability and Learning Support Service.