We welcomed Dr Eilidh Cage to the TILE Network where she presented her research on contributing factors of drop out in Autistic students and their experiences and perception at university. The different potential risks for non-completion that she investigated were:

  • Diagnosis and disclosure: Difficult decision whether to disclose the diagnosis; uncomfortable about being labelled as autistic and stigmatisation
  • Academic experiences: Novel aspects of teaching; novel approaches to studying needed
  • Social experiences: Difficulty to find a social network and make friends in a new context
  • Mental wellbeing: Dealing with mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression
  • Sensory sensitivities: Sensory overload in HE due to large lectures
  • Transition to university: Getting familiar with new context, new procedures; potentially being away from home adds to the burden

Eilidh and her colleagues conducted a large-scale survey and collected data from 230 Autistic people. These were further categorised into two distinct groups: those who completed their studies and those who did not complete their studies. The findings show that Transition to university seems to be an important risk factor for drop out in Autistic people. Other influential factors were negative Academic experiences as well as suboptimal Social experiences. It was pointed out that Transition to university could be a good starting point for interventions with specific programmes that prepare prospective students better for university and challenges that come with university life. This could remedy later issues with Academic and Social experiences consequently.

It should be noted that the goal is not to single out Autistic people and offer tailored programmes for them. Rather, these programmes and initiates should be put in place for all prospective university students. It is easy to see that most of the factors listed above will be a challenge for most – if not all – students entering university. Thus, having initiatives in place will contribute to an open and welcoming environment and benefit all. What could these initiatives look like?

Eilidh shared the following ideas:

  • Evidence-based transition support, e.g., offering taster sessions to prospective students
  • Training for university staff
  • Create an open environment in which no-one feels that they need to camouflage or pretend being someone they are not

I would like to add here that close collaborations between secondary schools and higher education institutions can help make those initiatives happen and contribute to a smoother transition between educational sectors for students.

Eilidh’s final statement really stuck with me:

You should not need a diagnosis to get support when transitioning to university. It should be available for everyone.

Hope this helps!

Abstract of the talk:

Autistic students are at higher risk of dropping out of university, yet this risk is little understood. In this research, quantitative and qualitative methods were used to examine (a) the different factors that may relate to university completion for autistic people and (b) the experiences of autistic people who had dropped out of university. Quantitative findings indicated that social and academic challenges, and in particular finding the transition to university difficult, contributed to the risk of dropping out. Qualitative findings identified several systemic issues – such as difficulties accessing diagnosis and poor autism understanding – as well as specific challenges within university – such as culture shock and a lack of proactive support. This talk will also touch upon other research findings regarding camouflaging (hiding or masking the fact one is autistic) and first impressions (how autistic people are perceived by non-autistic people on first meeting), and how these apply to the Higher Education context. Together, these findings suggest there is still a long way to go to ensure equal opportunities for autistic students.


About the speaker:

Dr Eilidh Cage completed her PhD at the Centre for Research in Autism and Education (CRAE) at the UCL Institute of Education. She worked as a Lecturer (Teaching-Focused) at Royal Holloway, University of London (2015-2019) before starting as a Lecturer at the University of Stirling in January 2020. Her research interests focus primarily on the experiences of autistic adolescents and adults. For example, she is interested in camouflaging behaviours, autism acceptance (both in terms of from self and others), mental health in autism and the experiences of autistic students at university. You can follow her on Twitter: @DrEilidh