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Creating Europe’s first autism-friendly campus
DCU Students, Ardit Hoxha and Caoimhe Ní Chathail with Adam Harris, Founder of AsIAm.ie at the launch of the DCU Autism Friendly Campus initiative

Creating Europe’s first autism-friendly campus

AsIAm.ie, Specialisterne Ireland and DCU collaborate to empower students and graduates with Autism and Aspergers

Dublin City University is aiming to become Ireland’s first autism-friendly campus through a unique collaboration with AsIAm.ie, the autism support and advocacy service and Specialisterne Ireland, a specialist recruitment and support agency for people with autism.

The University is beginning an 18 month programme to create a learning environment that allows students with Autism and Aspergers to take part fully in college life, and also to gain employment afterwards.

“The unemployment rate among people with autism spectrum disorders is currently around 80%, despite many of these people having excellent qualifications”, according to DCU President, Professor Brian MacCraith.  “This is a loss not just to the individuals, but to the employers who miss out on a cohort of talented and qualified people. This programme will include autism-friendly internships that if implemented nationally could lead to employment for up to 400 students each year.    

The autistic student leaving school moves from a highly supportive situation to a mostly independent learning environment where they encounter a number of challenges.  They then move from Third Level education to a job selection process where, despite the good work of the Third Level Disability Support Service, many still find it difficult to demonstrate their academic abilities in an application/interview process and to obtain the required work internships. 

The challenges at Third Level include lack of awareness and understanding of autism amongst peers and teaching staff, which means simple supports are often not provided. This lack of understanding can bring isolation, misunderstanding and bullying or a person with autism not being able to make the most of their college experience.  As a result,  people with autism are sometimes unable to make the most of Third Level.

Adam Harris, founder of AsIAm.ie and disability advocate said,

“The aim of this project is to help students with autism transition to third level and ultimately to independence by creating a more inclusive atmosphere in college, and helping with their transition to employment.  Working with Dublin City University, we can create a social, commercial, academic and cultural environment which is wholly inclusive..  If we succeed, more people with autism will remain and succeed both at third-level and subsequently in work. 

“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.  The outcome will be a model of inclusion and successful transition suitable for universities throughout Ireland.”

DCU will evaluate its current supports and encourage student bodies, student services and academic staff to become more autism-friendly, challenging their attitudes and their perceptions of autism spectrum disorders.  The university will also set up and test a support model to enable affected students to transition into employment from third level education.  It will work to obtain suitable internships needed by students who are required to do them in order to complete their course.

The aim is to raise post-college expectations among students with autism, create a healthier, happier environment for them, and reduce drop-out rates, mental health problems and subsequent unemployment among students.

Professor Brian MacCraith, President of DCU said,

"This unique project is consistent with DCU’s commitment to an ethos of education for all.  We are very aware of the challenges faced by our students with autism and aspergers.   We hope both to lead and to learn, applying innovative thinking to bring down barriers to education and employment in collaboration with AsIAm.ie and Specialisterne.  We want all students to be able to get through difficult transition points at third level, stay the course and have a full and fulfiling university experience, both socially and academically.”  

It is estimated that there are over 65,000 autistic people in Ireland of whom at least 15,000 adult autistic people are unemployed despite possessing 3rd level qualifications.  During the project, Specialisterne will focus on establishing a more structured response to the difficulties experienced by young adults with autism as they begin the transition into the world of work.  This will take the form of supporting candidates in gaining good and relevant internships with potential future employers. 

The challenges for those seeking to join the world of work include difficulties in navigating the job application and interview process, gaps in work experience, lower academic qualifications which reflect neither the ability of the candidate nor the impact of their disability on their academic potential, or fitting into a work environment which might not be sensitive to the needs of people with autism.

Specialisterne Ireland, through its connections with the Intra service and the Centre for Talented Youth in Ireland, both located in DCU, and with employers, will provide employment assessment, preparation and support services to those undergraduates placed in industry.

Sheila Gilheany, Chair, Specialisterne Ireland said,

“There is currently a significant demand for IT and related qualifications and Specialisterne Ireland is supporting candidates with autism to take up these roles with appropriate assessment and support. We have an established track record in placing candidates with autism in multi national companies and a range of organisations across Ireland and believe that building that capacity at third-level is an essential component in supporting additional graduates to go on to full-time meaningful employment. This project will allow Specialisterne support autistic students gain necessary work experience to complete their courses and assist other colleges and businesses in their efforts to make their organisations more autism friendly.”

Funding of €50k has been received from the Dormant Accounts Fund to develop the pilot project over the next 18 months.  The project will begin with an extensive consultation period from January to May 2016 which will collate data on the current experience of students with autism on DCU campuses, the level of awareness amongst the staff and student bodies and establish target goals for DCU to meet to receive autism-friendly campus designation.