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Breaking down, dropping out: supporting mental health and academic achievement among autistic students

Dr Felicity Sedgewick

17 November 2020

Researchers at the University of Bristol have been working to understand the issues faced by autistic people in the university setting.

At the time of writing, there are roughly 250 autistic students enrolled at the University of Bristol. University students in general often experience problems with their mental health, and autistic students even more so. A team of researchers led by developmental psychologist Dr Felicity Sedgewick of the University of Bristol set out to understand more about the challenges and issues that autistic students can face, and whether they felt they had enough support.

For this study, jointly funded by the Elizabeth Blackwell Institute Mental Health In Young People Challenge Scheme, 24 autistic students from the University of Bristol were asked to fill out mental health questionnaires four times over the course of an academic year, and also to take part in an interview about their experiences. Most of autistic students started the year with high levels of anxiety and with middling levels of depression. Some of the students also had obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and eating disorders.

Consistent levels

For most participants, the level of these mental health issues stayed consistent across the year. This is perhaps unexpected, as Dr Sedgewick explained:

“In other student groups it might be expected that, for example, anxiety levels would reduce as they got used to being at university,” she said. “However, despite the high level of mental health challenges they faced, most of our participants did not report problematic levels of drinking or recreational drug use, which suggests that they are finding other, more positive coping strategies.”

Behind the numbers

The interviews revealed more about the underlying reasons for the questionnaire answers. Participants spoke about how important social support was in coping with both university and their mental health - having friends who understood them was a crucial factor.

“Many participants also said that they had experienced difficulties trying to get support from the university,” said Dr Sedgewick, “either because individual staff did not know much about autism so they could not help them, or because the wider support systems were difficult to understand - so they missed out on what was on offer.

“The students also made suggestions for how to improve these systems, such as having a chat option rather than relying on phone calls, but overall they felt that people around them wanted to do the best they could.”

There are clearly issues identified which need attention, and the research project has received a positive response from the autism community.

“The response from participants, autistic students, and the autism community as a whole has been gratifying,” said Dr Sedgewick. “It is a piece of work which has been appreciated by all those who have spoken to me about it, and there is a sense of gratitude that the Elizabeth Blackwell Institute and Bristol have funded work to understand and support a group who often feel overlooked.”

But there is still much to be done. Dr Sedgewick is submitting an application for Office for Students funding for a project to develop and trial mental health support specifically tailored for autistic students.

“This will involve Bristol being the lead institution for a network across four universities in the UK,” Dr Sedgewick said. “ We’ll be working with other academics with expertise in autistic student mental health, disability services, wellbeing services, and with input from autistic students and recent graduates, to ensure that we do all we can to give these students the best service possible.”

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