Supporting mental health and academic achievement among autistic students

This research is led by Dr Felicity Sedgewick

Autistic people experience more mental health issues than non-autistic people, but struggle to access appropriate support, leading to high rates of self-harm and suicide. These problems are most common among cognitively-able autistic people – those who are most likely to attend university.

Moving to university can be difficult for anyone, but especially autistic students. Autism is associated with specific challenges around change to routine, social anxiety and planning. Struggling to cope with these demands can create or exacerbate mental health problems in autistic young people.

Aims

Our research aims to find out more about the mental health of students at the University of Bristol, including whether they access support, and how useful they find support designed for non-autistic people.

Knowing this may not only improve student retention, it may also help to create a better experience for autistic students at the University.

What we did, and what we have found so far

The project tracked the mental health of a group of autistic students across the 2019/20 academic year. Over 10 per cent of autistic students at the University took part, completing online mental health questionnaires at four points during the year.

Our findings suggested a surprising level of stability in mental health scores among the group, though this may be because a large proportion of the participants began the year highly anxious and depressed, and they maintained these levels, rather than problems reducing as they acclimatised to university. We found that having avoidant coping strategies (like denial) was central to this maintenance, so it may be that supporting active coping strategies (like seeking help) can improve mental health for autistic students.

Participants also took part in interviews about their experiences of mental health and mental health support while at the University. Three clear themes emerged from these interviews:

  • the importance of relationships in both positive and negative mental health experiences at university
  • independence at university
  • suggestions for improving support.

Inclusion

Autistic students at the University were involved in every stage of the project. For example, we worked with them to revise and reframe our questions to make them clearer, which resulted in getting better data.

The research had been received positively by participants and other autistic students as it aims to understand and support a group who often feel overlooked.

Impact on policy and next steps

Lots of universities face challenges in supporting autistic students.  We aim to develop and trial a staff training programme around autistic student mental health. Longer term, we hope to roll out this programme to other universities across the UK.