View Dyslexie font  |  View high contrast
Subscribe to the ADCET newsletter

ADCET Webinar: Autistic students’ experiences of university in Australia

This ADCET Webinar explored autistic students experiences when enrolling and attending university.

In recent years, the number of autistic people entering university has doubled. While an encouraging trend, autistic students’ completion rates remain much lower than non-autistic students in Australia. Autistic people’s low completion rates have been attributed to academic challenges (e.g., unable to access appropriate support) and non-academic challenges (e.g., social isolation and loneliness). Across several existing qualitative studies investigating autistic people’s university experiences, their experiences of stigma and discrimination were consistently identified as a key theme underlying their university lives.

In this co-produced project, a team of autistic and non-autistic researchers sought to understand autistic university students’ experiences of going through university in Australia. They conducted semi-structured interviews with 21 autistic people who either had completed at least one university course in Australia, were current students at an Australian university, or enrolled in but discontinued a university course in Australia.

They analysed the interviewees’ transcripts using reflexive thematic analysis to answer two research questions. First, they were interested to understand the contexts and circumstances in which autistic people experienced discrimination at university in Australia. In their recently published article titled ‘It’s a symbolic violence’: Autistic people’s experiences of discrimination at universities in Australia, they identified four key themes related to this research questions:

  • ‘My disability is something that people just don’t have a clue about’
  • ‘The system is really stacked against you’
  • The onus is on autistic students
  • ‘Grit and stubbornness’

As for the second research question, they wanted to understand how autistic students approach university and identify ways in which universities can support autistic students’ ways of learning. The preliminary analysis has identified four themes:

  • “I had to fight really hard to get through”
  • Flexible structures and pedagogical approaches
  • Fostering an enabling environment
  • Building a sense of belonging

The team is working with a qualified learning designer to develop recommendations for university to create a neuro-affirming environment for neurodivergent learners. In this webinar, Marion and Diana shared some of these study findings and recommendations.


Dr Diana Tan (she/her) is a Macquarie University Research Fellow with over 10 years of experience in autism research. She has recently been awarded a research fellowship to understand autistic people’s experiences of university in Australia, particularly their experiences of stigma and discrimination. The penultimate aim of her research is to develop ways in which universities can become an enabling, rather than disabling, learning environment for autistic and otherwise neurodivergent students. Diana is also passionate about improving our research practices through increasing engagement – and sharing decision-making power – with autistic people as active collaborators in all aspects of the research process. 

Marion Rabuka (she/her) is a Research Assistant at Macquarie University and works with Dr. Tan as a community co-researcher. Marion is a social worker with extensive experience in clinical, leadership and management roles. Marion is experienced in user-led design, a Board Member of The Autistic Realm Australia Inc. and a Member of the Australasian Autism Research Council.

(April 2024)

ADCET is hosted by the University of Tasmania