Disclosing your Disability, Difference or Condition at College
Disclosure means you share some aspects of your disability, difference or condition to others within your environment, such as at work, in higher education or with friends. It’s important to state that you don’t have to disclose anything about your autism diagnosis, or any other disabilities, conditions or differences you have, if you don’t want to. The decision to disclose lies with you, you shouldn’t feel pressure from anyone else to do so, and State institutions like Universities or Colleges are obliged under the law to keep any personal information you disclose confidential. However, there are some benefits to disclosing your autism diagnosis, or other disabilities or differences you have, at your University, such as accessing supports for classes, tutorials and assessments, that may make the disclosure process worthwhile. This section aims to raise awareness of some key reasons why disclosure might be the right choice for you.
Many disabled people fear being discriminated against by wider society, and this can be a major reason why they might prefer not to disclose their disability or difference and to ‘mask’ or disguise their characteristics or traits to fit into society. This is because there is still a negative stigma attached to disability, and some people within society might hold attitudes around disability that might be prejudiced against disabled people. Many disabled people fear that they may be judged for having a disability, rather than their skills, or their personal qualities they can bring, and that this can lead to stigmatising or judgemental attitudes that can negatively impact on their work. Many disabled people hold the view that the Higher Education Institute should do everything possible to accommodate the disabled person’s access needs, and to remove any potentially disabling barriers that might arise at University or College to ensure that they have the best learning experience possible.
Nobody should experience discrimination, particularly on the grounds of their difference or disability, and that there are University-wide and national laws and policies like the Equal Status Act and the Disability Act that are designed to stop this kind of discrimination from happening. Disclosing your experience of being autistic can also be a great way to counter these barriers, and challenge stereotypes to neurotypical or allistic (people who are not autistic) people who might not have the day-to-day lived experience of being autistic, or who have misformed presumptions about autism and the barriers you experience on a daily basis.
The Education Act obliges all education institutions, including colleges and universities, to provide disabled students or students with learning support needs with appropriate resources, accommodations and supports to meet their educational needs.
Educational institutions must establish and maintain an admissions policy that allows as many people as possible to access education, including people with disabilities and neurodivergent students.
The Equal Status Act (2000) provides for a way that Universities can support disabled students to access their education called ‘Reasonable Accommodations’. Section 4 of the Equal Status Act states that “A reasonable accommodation can be any means of providing special treatment or facilities if, without such accommodations, it would be impossible or unduly difficult for the person to avail of the service provided by the educational establishment”.
However, the Act also states that the educational institution, like other service providers, might not have to provide accommodations if it causes an ‘undue burden’ financially to the institution. However, the grounds for a University claiming this is limited. In cases where there is State funding available that can pay for the required accommodations, like the Special Fund for Students with Disabilities, then the institution must provide the accommodation, along with any other ‘nominal costs’ associated with putting the accommodation in place.
You have the right to access additional supports if you need it
Ireland has laws and policies, including pieces of legislation like the Equal Status Act that obliges Universities, Institutes of Technology and Higher Education Institutes to ensure that disabled students and autistic students can access their education on the same basis as their neurotypical or non-disabled peers. This gives autistic students the right to access additional services and supports, including Reasonable Accommodations, to support you in your academic life and to achieve the qualification you want.
All universities and higher education institutes have a designated section, usually a Disability Support Service or an Access Officer, who is responsible for supporting students with disabilities whilst they’re on campus. They’re there to help you if you need anything specific from your College or University (like educational materials, recorders, handouts or wheelchair access) or if there are any facilities that you’re not happy with.
The Disability Support Officer or Access Officer will be your go-to person within the College or University to discuss any concerns you might have regarding how your condition, difference or disability might impact your right to access education. Every College or University has different policies and procedures for providing support in place, so it might be a good idea to contact them in person or via email to find out what supports are available. This can help you to make the most of your time spent at University or College. You can ask your Student Union to see if any clubs or societies can be made more accessible to you, or if there are any specific societies that advocate for students with disabilities and their interests that you can join.
Benefits of Disclosure
The main advantage of disclosing that you are autistic to your higher education institute is that lecturers, tutors and staff can provide you with services and supports that can fit your needs as a student. Staff at the University can work with you to provide the support you need to help you succeed in your course.
Some of the supports you can ask from your Disability Support Officer include:
Your Disability Support Service can also help connect you with other support services that can help you adjust to college life, including Student Counselling or Academic Writing Centres.
Should I disclose that I’m autistic?
Disclosure is a personal choice – you don’t have to disclose your autism diagnosis to others if you want to, and you are not obliged to disclose your autism diagnosis. Do bear in mind though that staff at your higher education institute might not know what your support needs are, they might not be able to support you in the way you’d like them to.
In the round, it is usually a good idea to disclose that you’re autistic if you feel comfortable and confident enough to do so. Whilst it can be particularly helpful to disclose and reach out for supports, disclosing that you’re autistic might also be helpful to you if you’re thriving at University, if you feel confident about being open about being autistic. Being open about your diagnosis can be helpful if you want to increase autistic acceptance, understanding and inclusion around the campus and challenge barriers, misconceptions and stereotypes surrounding autism and different neurotypes and disabilities.
What are some common misconceptions around disclosing my diagnosis?
To help you to come to a decision about whether to disclose, it might be helpful to dispel some of the common misconceptions around disclosure. When you tell your University or Higher Education Institute about your diagnosis, only a small number of staff will know that you’re autistic and are bound by legal and ethical considerations not to tell anyone else about your autism diagnosis, as well as any other disabilities or differences you might have, without your express permission. They are there to support you in your academic studies, and if they refer you to anyone else within the Institute, it is to ensure that you receive the best support available.
Universities and Colleges want to see their students succeed and to complete their academic studies. For neurodivergent, disabled and autistic students, this experience of college or academic life can be quite different, and you might find some parts of your studies more difficult than your neurotypical or non-disabled peers. Whilst Universities or Colleges are making their practices more accessible and inclusive to autistic people, they might still need to put in place additional supports to navigate the sensory environment and ensure a positive academic experience for everyone. If you need more supports and accommodations that can help you to work more effectively, your University, Institute of Technology or College will accommodate your support needs where possible. You can also develop study plans and supports that can support you to use your skills, talents and strengths to the fore in your studies
How do I disclose and reach out for support?
To get support, you can speak to your lecturer/tutor or get in touch with your University or College’s Disability Support Service. This might require having to go through a formal diagnosis process and documentation of your diagnosis in order to receive reasonable accommodations, but you don’t need to go through a diagnosis process if you have already done so as a child or teenager – you can produce a copy of your Psychologist Report or Supporting Letter. For more information about the process and what it entails, it might be useful to get in touch with the Disability Support Service. Whilst parents, family members or friends can provide added support, they cannot speak to HEI staff without your express permission. If you wish to have your parents support you when accessing supports, and if they’re willing to travel to your University or College to support you, you can invite your parents to any meetings you might have with lecturers, tutors or support staff, or you can give staff permission to contact your parents to talk about what supports you need.
Consider how being autistic might impact your studies at University
When deciding to disclose your autism diagnosis, you might consider how your disability, as well as the everyday accessibility and inclusion barriers you might encounter at College or University, might have an impact on your studies. It is important to remember that having a disability or difference like autism is not a bad or shameful thing, and that it can be a different way of perceiving and understanding the world around you. It is not your fault that you feel excluded at University or that you don’t have your support needs met. We need autistic and disabled people in all walks of life and in every aspect of society. It is the job of wider society, including higher education institutions, to address the wider stigma and barriers that are associated with having a disability, including neurodevelopmental differences like autism, and to do everything possible to include you at University, as you are, and without imposing the need to ‘mask’ or hide your autistic traits away from others. Whilst some people might prefer not to disclose their autism diagnosis if they feel that it doesn’t impact their ability as a student, it can be reassuring to know that your Higher Education Institute will always have supports if you do change your mind and decide to disclose, or even disclose right now with a view to accessing supports at a later date.
It is completely valid to have apprehensions around the prospect of disclosing your disability or difference to access supports, at all aspects of life, given the private and personal nature of this information. It is important to note that being autistic, like being disabled, is a core part of your identity as a person and it impacts the way that you experience the world. There are also external factors, like pressure to minimise your disability or difference to conform or fit into society, or you might be feeling unsure or anxious about the process which might have an impact on your decision.
The media often portrays disability and neurodivergent people, including autistic people, in a negative or paternalistic light. This can misinform perceptions society might have that portray disability as a bad thing, or that stereotypes disabled people, rather than their thoughts and actions, as “inspirational” for their disability alone. Other depictions can conflate ‘disability’ as having a ‘lack of capacity or ability’, and that depicts disability and some disabled people as having a particular set of support needs, only needing care, or having their parents or carers speak for them. Neurodiversity, autism and disability can present itself in many forms, and that portray autism as a wide spectrum of strengths and support needs that span beyond, and sometimes diverge from the traditional media perceptions surrounding autism, and disability. Therefore it is always important for Universities to start from a place where every autistic person is competent and is capable of achieving the success they want, with the right supports for their access needs in place.
Disclosing your experience of being autistic can also be a good way to counter these barriers and challenge stereotypes to neurotypical or allistic people who might not have the day-to-day lived experience of being autistic, or who have misformed presumptions about autism and the barriers you experience on a daily basis. It can also demonstrate to neurotypical or non-disabled people that with the right supports and adjustments in place, you can show your strengths, qualities and talents as a person and achieve success in the career you want.
Starting university or college is a fantastic achievement and making the transition to higher education is an exciting time for many people. Whilst as a neurodivergent student, you might find barriers to inclusion and changes to structures like new processes, new policies, different buildings or lecture theatres to find, new ways to travel there, new people, and new ways of learning as a student. If you feel that disclosing that you’re autistic might help to address any accessibility issues you might encounter, or even to feel more comfortable and confident in your academic life, you can do so, as there are many good reasons why disclosure might enhance your student experience. If you wish to discuss what supports you need to get the most out of your college experience, we would recommend speaking with the Disability Support Service, Accessibility Officer or your Student Union’s Welfare Officer to talk about what supports you need.
Check out Jenny Dunwoody’s video, where she discuses late diagnosis and letting people know that you are autistic and Laocin Brennanu video of ‘Why do you think it is important in your education journey to disclose your autism diagnosis’.