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UDL Symposium: 2C. Why are autistic people (cautiously) excited about UDL in universities?

Corrected captions will be added shortly

Live presentation including Q&A

Only 8% of autistic Australians have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 16% of those with a disability and 31% of those without disability. There is increasing evidence that the low enrolment, and lower completion, rates of autistic students are a function of structural, social and environmental barriers, not lack of capability.

Over the last decade, Sandra has undertaken numerous research projects with autistic secondary and tertiary students and their families exploring barriers and facilitators of educational success. She has also worked as a mentor with autistic students on navigating tertiary education, and as a mentor and trainer for educators on ways to improve supports for autistic students.

Universal Design for Learning offers a ray of hope for autistic students, but why we are only cautiously optimistic?

  • Engagement: What does it mean for an autistic student to be ‘engaged’?
  • Representation: How can you respect the different ways we learn?
  • Action and Expression: What are some common concerns raised by students and are forms of assessment more accessible than others?

Some Caveats:

  • The Executive Function Challenge: Some autistic students can be overwhelmed by too many choices. It is important to implement autism-friendly strategies to support decision making.

The U in UDL: A lifetime of being told that we need to change or hide the parts of ourselves that are different to others makes us understandably cautious about universal approaches. While so much of good UDL practice benefits autistic students, there is a need to retain openness to specific individual needs.


Sandra Thom-Jones is an autistic author, artisan, academic and advocate. She is the author of Growing in to Autism (MUP, 2022), and a passionate champion for the inclusion of autistic people in all aspects of society. As a consultant ( she provides career mentoring, advice and advocacy, and tailored supports for autistic people and their families; and education sessions, workshops, resource development, and other services for organisations. Sandra has worked in the university sector for more than two decades, most recently as Pro Vice-Chancellor (Research Impact) at the Australian Catholic University. Sandra is one of the most high-profile autistic autism researchers in Australia, and is recognised internationally as a leader in autism research. This is reflected in her being awarded the 2019 Autism CRC Research Translation Award, 2021 Autism CRC Research Translation Award and 2022 Autism CRC Inclusive Research Award; her appointment to the International Society for Autism Research (INSAR) Autistic Researchers Committee; and her numerous invitations to speak at conferences and other forums. 

(September 2023)