A Project in Review: The Exeter Spectrum Programme

Dr Layal Hakim wrote this blog to reflect on and review her Incubator project: the Exeter Spectrum Programme, which she ran with Dr. Barrie Cooper.

Layal is a Senior Lecturer in Mathematics at the University of Exeter. She has run a series projects as Incubator Fellow over previous years, and is supporting a project for 2020/21, working on a project called ‘Mathematics without Tears and Fears: Pedagogical Games.’

The Incubator Writing Retreat was held in May 2020 and provided a dedicated space for Incubator Fellows to focus on writing on a topic of their choice. Further blogs written at the event will be published here in future.

Introduction

The Exeter Spectrum Programme is an Education Incubator project exploring how we can best support autistic students at the University of Exeter.  It is intended to complement the existing support mechanisms and activities already undertaken, primarily by the Accessability team and their mentors.

A chief concern in designing the project was questioning whether staff are aware of what the university currently does for autistic students or how they themselves can adapt their practice to become more inclusive, particularly in respect of autistic students.  We therefore determined that a key strand of the project would be to convene a group of `Autism Champions’ from as many departments and services as we could, so that we could discuss the challenges and opportunities associated with supporting autistic students, spread awareness of the University’s existing initiatives, and could help each department or service to host its own conversation about autism.

The coronavirus and subsequent lockdown has interrupted many of the plans that we had for the project, but we are hopeful that our work with the Autism Champions will continue and that with revised timescales we will still be able to deliver much of what was originally planned for this group.

Membership

At the start of the Autumn term, we contacted Colleges and Services announcing our intention to convene a group of Autism Champions and requesting volunteers.  We also had contact details of a range of staff who wanted to become involved from when we presented our plans at the Incubator Café before Summer 2019.  Our invitations were cascaded by Colleges and Services, leading to approximately 35 staff across the University wishing to become Champions. We were very encouraged by the level of interest and determined that we would try to include everyone in the group who wished to be part of it.  A list of Autism Champions can be found on the project blogsite: http://blogs.exeter.ac.uk/exeterspectrumprogramme.

There is significant diversity within the group of Autism Champions, from those who have direct experience personally and/or professionally with autism, to those staff who wanted to know more so that they could do a better job as a Personal Tutor. Very few Champions knew initially of the existing provision for autistic students. A small number of Champions are diagnosed with an autism spectrum condition.

Schedule of meetings

We held there face-to-face meetings with our Autism Champions in the Autumn term and one meeting via Zoom during Easter, after the coronavirus lockdown.  The face-to-face meetings were also video-conferenced via Skype for Business for those who could not attend in person (e.g. from other campuses). We supplemented the meetings with emails to the group, summarising key points and next steps.

The broad themes of each meeting are summarised below:

Meeting 1: Introduction to the project and to each other. The role of an Autism Champion.  What each of us hopes to offer to the group, and what we hope to learn from the group.

Meeting 2: Autism as a spectrum condition.  Challenges and opportunities connected with neurodiversity.

Meeting 3: Discussion with experts from the National Autistic Society (NAS).

Meeting 4 (Zoom): Revised schedule and plans for the group. Feedback on NAS training resources. Discussion about what to disseminate and how best to do this.

Thematic summary

Given the diverse nature of autism spectrum conditions and the individual needs of autistic students, a very real question for the group is to what extent ‘general advice’ can be distilled and given regarding autism. Discussion would typically see-saw between identifying practical ways in which we can support autistic students and cautioning against any attempts at generalising or stereotyping students.  One aspect on which everyone seemed to agree is that there is significant value in simply having a conversation about autism within the group and within departments and service, if only to raise awareness of issues around diversity and inclusivity.  Nevertheless, there were some interesting and practical ideas that emerged, particularly from our discussion with the experts from NAS.

  1. Learning statements/profiles: One idea was that all staff and students could develop a short learning statement that discussed how that individual learned and responded to others best. This seemed to be precisely the sort of initiative that could normalise discussion around learning preferences and individuality, and would promote diversity and the richness that results. A parallel is the increasing inclusion of preferred pronouns in email signatures, which helps to promote and normalise discussions about gender identity and valuing diversity.
  2. Presenting information via different modes to aid with inclusivity:  A particular issue raised was the amount of verbal (and non-verbal) amplification provided in class on a written document such as an assignment brief.  Some autistic students struggle to retain this additional spoken guidance and would benefit from it being written down (particularly if it is not available via Recap).  The importance of Recap as a tool for promoting inclusivity was emphasised as part of this discussion.  Another example was ensuring that clarifying questions are answered in communications to the whole class (where appropriate), such as via an ELE forum, which can help to ensure transparency and parity of information available, and can ensure that students who struggle with personal communication of this nature don’t miss out on responses they would find valuable.

Whilst it is of fundamental importance to treat each autistic student as an individual and to respond appropriately to their individual requirements, there is a corresponding risk that we over-emphasise a deficit model of ‘dealing’ with autism.  The conversation needs to remain equally balanced and focused on opportunities that arise from neuro-diversity, and methods to promote inclusive planning, teaching, learning and assessing.  Individual Learning Plans, whilst of value and tailored to the individual to some extent, were considered broadly to be focused too much on this deficit model.

A typical concern was to what extent Autism Champions could authentically present themselves as ‘experts’, or able to offer ‘hints and tips’ to their colleagues. We have tried to reassure our Champions that we are not expecting them to be experts, but that we want them to promote a dialogue within their discipline or service about autism. However, it also seems appropriate to pose the question of what they have learned from being part of the group and what advice they might have for colleagues (even if none is forthcoming).

This is the constant challenge of facilitating such discussions: acknowledging the complexity of the issue, whilst not giving up entirely a priori on the challenge of being able to distil some ‘wisdom’.  If one truly believes in the possibility of planning for inclusivity and diversity, then some general principles and advice relating to this must surely exist – otherwise are we not simply stuck with a deficit model? (Perhaps someone will point out a flaw in this argument and I can be further enlightened.)  Indeed, the relevant legislation emphasises not only how we have legal responsibility to be responsive to student needs, but also to anticipate and address these needs wherever possible.

Many Champions felt unprepared for the complexity and diversity of issues they were required to respond to and felt that ILPs were insufficient to help the member of staff understand the individual.  Here again, we see the tension inherent in specifying ‘remedial’ adjustments at an individual level versus promoting awareness of the underlying condition and proactive steps that can be taken to make education more inclusive, whilst respecting an individual’s right to non-disclosure beyond a few key members of staff.  One suggestion for improving staff understanding of conditions such as autism is to include links on ILPs to relevant training or resources.  But is it possible to do this in such a way that the individual is not identified as having such a condition?  Perhaps ideally we would move to a situation whereby diversity is welcomed and no-one fears disclosing such information, but that would seem to be a long way off, and we should surely beware of stripping the individual of the right to choose who has access to such personal information.

As part of the project we purchased licenses for a selection of NAS training resources and offered these to our Autism Champions to evaluate.  The feedback was extremely positive, but there was also recognition that to be of most use to Higher Education, the resources would need to be reworked and less relevant information removed.  Opinion was divided as to whether the resources were successful in explaining a spectrum condition without overgeneralising!

A regular request of our Champions was to hear from students who have autism about their experiences.  This is an aspect of the project that we were keen to explore, but we have had practical difficulties in implementing.  One challenge has been identifying individuals who are prepared to discuss this with a group of staff – we have had some tentative leads, but nothing that has been able to result in a concrete dialogue of this nature.  A second challenge is that of recording such a student experience for wider use – our ethical approval for this was not successful and we simply haven’t had time to rework it to make this formally part of the project.  Nevertheless, this is an aspect that AccessAbility and the University more generally should work on and could be of most practical benefit to staff and students alike.  Other universities, for example, have more prominent video collages of the experiences of autistic students. 

This leads to another important theme: approaches to supporting autistic students are likely to benefit all (or many) students – inclusivity essentially benefits everyone.  Proactively addressing the concerns, say, that autistic students have about what to expect from university, are very likely to improve the expectations of many other students who do not have an autism diagnosis.  Story-telling is an incredibly important part of valuing diversity and we would encourage the University to invest in expanding story-telling initiatives, such as the booklets that were successfully produced by FXU in Penryn.

We plan to host a national conference on Autism in Higher Education. This conference is open to students and staff who are interested in autism in higher education. Presentations will be about supporting transitions, e.g. from school to university, or from university to workplace; Inclusive course and assessment design and delivery; understanding and embracing neurodiversity; communication strategies; socialising at university; creating community and belonging.

Other Aspects of the Project and Future Plans

One of the events that could not take place this year was the 2-day summer school that we had been discussing with Wellbeing, the Widening Participation team, and NAS. This 2-day summer school, that we hope will take place in the future, is for prospective students with autism to run for the first time at the University of Exeter. The summer school will introduce participants to student life and help prepare them for university-style learning and a campus-based student experience. Participants will engage in a sample lecture and seminar, sessions on skills and support available, student societies and the benefits of joining them. There will be a range of structured and informal opportunities to meet current students and other prospective students with autism.

With the help of the National Autistic Society, we plan to have a reviewing of how autism friendly the university is and to plan improvements and develop a strategy to achieve an Autism Friendly Award. This will include a review of existing practice at Exeter and best practice across the sector and will take the form of a report detailing findings and recommendations.

We would like to continue with meeting all autism champions in the coming academic year, and in future years too. We feel that their participation in spreading awareness on a departmental level is valuable. There are currently some departments, which do not have an autism champion, so it will be good to first reach out to those departments and ask if anyone would like to represent that department as an on-going autism champion. By meeting on a termly basis, we will identify what are the best techniques and practices to help students with autism, and help staff learn more about the requirements of autistic students. All the comments and suggestions will then be passed to the AccessAbility team, through the autism champion from the AccessAbility team.

Among the above future plans, an employability guide will be made which sets out a list of useful information for autistic students who are nearing the completion of their degree and thinking about the next stage of their life.

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The University of Exeter’s Education Incubator scheme. Promoting pedagogic innovation and collaboration with an aim to enhance learning across the University and beyond.

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