DCU to become Europe’s first Autism-friendly campus

Dublin City University is to become the first autism-friendly campus both in Ireland and Europe, through a new initiative with AsIAm.ie, the Autism support and advocacy service, and Specialisterne Ireland, an agency that offers recruitment and support for people with Autism.

DCU is setting out an 18 month programme to create a friendly learning environment for students with Autism and Aspergers. The university will evaluate its current supports and encourage student bodies, student services and academic staff to become more Autism-friendly by challenging their attitudes and their perceptions of Autism spectrum disorders (ASD). This new environment will help them to fully engage in college life and also gain employment as graduates.

It is estimated that there are over 65,000 people with an Autism spectrum disorder in Ireland. Many of whom are unemployed despite having third level qualifications.

“The unemployment rate among people with ASD is currently around 80% despite many of these people having excellent qualifications”, DCU President, Professor Brian MacCraith said.

“This programme will include autism-friendly internships that if implemented nationally could lead to employment for up to 400 students each year,” he said.

DCU Students’ Union has joined the project and have promised to work to educate the student body about autism. “We plan to work with university departments such as the disability office and SS&D to insure all of our students are aware of the services that are already in place,” DCU Students’ Union President, Kim Sweeney, said.

“We are going to run awareness campaigns to educate all of our students about Autism to make the university more inclusive,” she said.

While there has been significant progress in the provision of support for student with autism in primary and post-primary schools, third-level institutions lack dedicated response programmes that meet the needs of those with autism.

Autistic students leave school, where they had highly supportive services, and enter an independent learning environment, which leads to a number of challenges. The lack of support at third level can lead to isolation and misunderstanding of a person with Autism.

When looking for employment post-university, many students with Autism find it difficult to demonstrate their academic abilities during the job application and interview process. This leads to difficulties obtaining employment and potential Intra work internships.

“Our programme will help assess student’s abilities and areas of strength while they are still in college and provide training to undertake work experience, to ensure students with autism access the same opportunities as their peers,” Adam Harris, founder of AsIam.ie said.

Throughout this project, Specialisterne is set to focus on establishing a more structured response and service for the difficulties experienced by students with Autism as they begin their transition into the working environment. Through the organization’s connections with the Intra service and Centre for Talented Youth in Ireland, within DCU, they plan to provide employment preparation and support services for Autistic students.

People with an Autism spectrum disorder, are often academically intelligent. However, they have difficulties taking in information, communicating and socialising. They may be overly or under sensitive to particular sounds, touch, tastes, smells, colours and lights.

Hayley Halpin

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