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Autism program breaks barriers at ACU

Project developed with input from autistic students, staff

Australian Catholic University has launched a specialised program to support autistic students in their studies and help ease their transition into the higher education environment.

The university collaborated with autistic staff, students, alumni and other collaborators from ACU and other higher education institutions to develop the Autism at Uni program. It features a student mentor program, social activities, a dedicated web page for current and future students, and a resource section on the student portal.

It also includes professional development for staff and opportunities for research students to contribute to the development of the program. In addition, a $4000 Autism Inclusion Equity Scholarship will benefit autistic students commencing studies at the new Blacktown campus in western Sydney.

ACU Pro Vice Chancellor of Engagement, Professor Sandra Jones, said that as an autistic person herself, she is excited to lead the project which began to take shape when she realised that almost all similar programs at universities in Australia and overseas had been developed without the input of autistic people.

“TOO OFTEN THE FOCUS IS ON OUR CHALLENGES AND OBSTACLES…WHAT IS NEEDED IS A FOCUS ON THE STRENGTHS AND TALENTS OF AUTISTIC PEOPLE”

“As an autistic person who completed multiple university degrees (at three different universities) I often found university confusing and stressful,” she said.

“The biggest challenges for me were around social interaction, sensory overload, and interpreting communications from teaching staff and administrators. As a mother of two autistic adults, I have celebrated my sons’ successes as they undertake university studies, but also been distressed by the challenges that they have experienced that could so easily be overcome if universities were more aware of, and sensitive to, the needs of autistic people.

“For me the most important aspect of ACU’s Autism at Uni program is supporting autistic people to achieve their potential. Too often the focus is on our challenges and obstacles, and the inherent message is that we need to change who we are in order to be successful.

“What is needed is a focus on the strengths and talents of autistic people, and how the university environment can – and should – change to enable us to be successful without surrendering or hiding who we are.”

Professor Jones said she felt “extremely proud” to work at an institution that encourages and supports her in this vision.

ACU Vice President Father Anthony Casamento csma said the Autism at Uni program “is an innovative and ground-breaking program for the higher education sector in Australia”.

“ACU is proud to be playing a lead role in recognising the unique gifts that our autistic staff and students bring to enhance our learning communities,” he said.

According to Autism Spectrum Australia, autism is a condition that affects how a person thinks, feels, interacts with others, and experiences their environment. It is a lifelong disability often linked with physical, developmental or mental health conditions such as intellectual disability, epilepsy, gastro-intestinal issues, ADHD, dyspraxia, anxiety or depression.

As it varies from person to person it is described as a ‘spectrum’. For details about the ACU program see www.acu.edu.au/about-acu/autism-at-acu

Source: The Catholic Weekly. 17 April 2021