Groundbreaking workshops for autistic people applying for universities and jobs

The prospect of attending university or applying for a job can be scary for anyone, but autistic people have particular challenges, says Professor Mark Brosnan.

Students attending an autism summer school gather outside Bath Abbey doors
Students attend an autism summer school at Bath

Professor Mark Brosnan is the Director of Bath’s Centre for Applied Autism Research (CAAR), which opened in 2016.

CAAR offers excellent educational facilities and a world-class research team. Their focus is on supporting the social-cognitive challenges faced by the autistic community, and helping them to become fully involved in society. To this end, and as part of the University’s Gold Scholar project for Widening Participation and inclusion, Mark has established two very successful annual events for autistic young adults.

The University of Bath Autism Summer School (UBASS) helps with the transition from school to university; and BESSA assists with the transition from education to work.

Can an autistic person cope at university?

‘Absolutely. Some just need the right encouragement and support,’ says Mark. ‘A lot of autistic young people – more than half, in fact – are academically capable of doing this, but transitions can be particularly hard for them.

‘UBASS is an initiative designed to support people who intend to apply to a university, and it’s been running for five years, so it actually started before CAAR was formally established. Since we’re working at a university, studying and researching autism, we all felt it was appropriate to do this. Our work isn’t just about research and theories, and we were uniquely positioned to help in a practical way.

Chris Ashwin, Ailsa Russell and I started developing the autism summer school concept with Widening Participation help and additional funding from Bath alumni. Subsequently, we were also delighted to receive some charity funding from the Robert Burgess Foundation, the Three Guineas Trust and the Baily Thomas Foundation.

‘The summer school enables participants to stay in student accommodation at Bath for three days and two nights at the end of August and, for many, it’s the first time they’ve stayed away from home without their parents. In fact, it’s often the first time they’ve met anyone else autistic, too, and it’s a revelation for them to meet others who do or feel the same things, or have similar interests.

‘We introduce them to what to expect, from lectures and seminars to academic activities. And we also cover broader university life, by taking them to our Sports Training Village (STV) and introducing them to clubs and societies, the Student’s Union and campus cafes and restaurants. There are also specific sessions on managing anxiety, developing and maintaining friendships, and the question of exactly when you should disclose your autism.

‘We do a full evaluation afterwards and the feedback – from participants and parents alike – has been extraordinarily positive. In fact, the BBC published a report on one student’s experience at Bath, after she was diagnosed with autism at the age of 14 and advised that mainstream education wasn’t appropriate for her. Actually, it was.

‘The people on this course seem to have a really great time while they’re here, and anyone with autism who’s thinking about applying to a university can apply online. Once people have attended, many of their worries are allayed and they leave the campus full of enthusiasm. As a result, a lot of people who have done it have successfully applied to study at Bath, though we do demand very high entry grades so it’s not compulsory!

The idea of entering the workforce can be just as intimidating

It isn’t just pre-university people who need support. ‘That’s why Chris and I devised and launched the first Bath Employment Spring School for Autism (BESSA) last year too,’ says Mark. ‘BESSA is part of a joint venture funded by the University and JP Morgan Chase. We hope it’ll become an annual event.’

‘We could see that it would be useful to teach employment skills to both current and future autistic students. They’re often intimidated by the idea of attending a job interview, let alone starting work; and, in the same way as those transitioning from school, they aren’t sure what to expect from the application process or starting a job.’

CAAR organised two days of workshops that ran for the first time in February 2018, rolled out to GW4 Alliance students from Bristol, Cardiff and Exeter universities, to maximise the impact.

The first day was on the Bath campus, and the second was at JP Morgan’s Bournemouth campus, at their business park. Mark explains: ‘JP Morgan Chase got involved because they have an Autism at Work programme. They came to us because they wanted an expert opinion on what they were doing, and to see how it can be developed.

‘They’re a forward-thinking company in terms of neurodiversity, which is a term used to describe the spectrum of people born with genetic differences. In the last couple of years people have stopped being diagnosed with ‘Asperger’s syndrome’, or classified as being high- or low-functioning; instead, they’re described as having an Autism Spectrum Disorder. It’s more flexible because, within that term, you can specify the level of support needed.

Valuable to the workforce

‘Autistic people can be very articulate and able, yet challenged by their condition in other ways. And it’s important to many of them that they’re described as ‘autistic people’, rather than ‘people with autism’ because, if you think about it, the word ‘with’ is often suffixed by a negative, an affliction, like ‘with a headache’ or ‘with a problem’. You’d never describe someone as ‘with beauty’, or ‘with cleverness’, would you? ‘We invited two autistic people, both enjoying great careers, to talk about the challenges they’ve encountered.

One of them was former Detective Sergeant and Force Lead for Autism Adam O'Loughlin, who now heads up the Anti-Money Laundering (AML) Compliance investigation team at JP Morgan Chase and was in the news recently, in connection with Autism Awareness Week. This links nicely to the research my colleague, Katie Maras, has been doing, on improving interviewing techniques for autistic people.

‘Autistic people often offer the systematic thinking and attention to detail that prove very useful in the police force,’ says Mark. ‘It’s a structured environment with defined roles. As a result, they’re often hugely successful as employees, as Adam will testify. He’s an excellent role model.’

The response to the spring course was so positive that a repeat is already planned for April 2019, and anyone autistic who is thinking about employment is encouraged to apply online.

Living proof

‘We’re now in the process of trying to follow up,’ says Professor Brosnan, ‘to see how former BESSA students are getting on in their careers. In a year or two, we’ll also be able to find out UBASS attendees have fared at their universities, as they come to the end of their courses and graduate. I’m optimistic.

‘Finding out that they’ve not just coped, but have enjoyed themselves and ended up with the degrees or jobs they deserve, will be proof that these two courses can be life-changing for autistic people. They have challenges, certainly, but they can also offer the intelligence and a range of skills that can enable them to do really well at university, or in the workforce.

‘We just work with them on their confidence, explain the skills they need to demonstrate when they apply, and help them take the next step towards reaching their potential.’