Higher Education: Digital equity and autism

A view of Griffith University building which is new and about seven storeys high.Beware the diagnosis – it leads to stereotypes and misplaced assumptions. This was one of the findings from a research project at Griffith University. A common assumption is that people with autism find it difficult or stressful in social situations. For example, university discussion groups and making presentations. An assumption that follows is online learning would be their preferred learning method. Turns out this is not the case. Indeed, they had difficulty with online content for three key reasons. And these are also experienced by neurotypical students:

    1. Students had problems identifying which parts of the online content were most important
    2. They needed clarification of content by instructors to aid their online learning
    3. Students found it helpful when the instructor communicated links between content across the weeks or modules. 

So, the diagnosis is not the person. The research paper includes a literature review and a survey of students who identified as having autism. The paper has much useful information regarding the design of teaching and learning. The major point is that what’s good for students with autism is good for everyone. 

The title of the study is, “Online learning for university students on the autism spectrum: A systematic review and questionnaire study”. It was published in the Australasian Journal of Educational Technology – special issue: Digital Equity. It’s open access.

Abstract: Online course delivery is increasingly being used by universities to deliver accessible and flexible learning environments. As this mode of delivery grows it is important to consider the equity of the learning experience for all students. As online delivery may reduce challenges and stressors present in face-to-face delivery, it could be suggested that it may promote student learning for specific student groups, including those with a diagnosis on the autism spectrum. However, little is known about the experience of learning online for students on the autism spectrum. This article presents findings from two studies: a systematic review of the literature and a survey of students on the autism spectrum studying online. From the systematic literature review, only four previous studies were identified reporting on this topic. Findings from two studies identified that the online environment provided both facilitators of and barriers to the learning experience for students on the autism spectrum. Although the online environment provided flexibility for learning, how design factors are employed in online delivery may unintentionally create barriers to the learning experience for students on the spectrum. An outcome from this study has been the creation of a suite of resources to assist with course design and delivery. Implications for practice or policy:

•  Consider the impact of course design on students with diverse learning profiles.
•  Not all students disclose their diagnosis, so ensure methods of accessing support are clear.
•  Work proactively to ensure that interactions with instructors and are responsive and flexible to facilitate the online learning of all students.  

Autism and Building Design

A young girl is wide-eyed with a drooping mouth as is she is about to be unhappy.If designers are not already thinking about people with autism, they soon will be, or should be. People with autism have the same rights to functional and accessible spaces as everyone else. In his article on Branch Pattern website, Stuart Shell gives an overview of ASD (autism spectrum disorder). He explains why building owners and designers need to include this group, and how it will create great architecture at the same time. 

One in one hundred and fifty children were diagnosed with ASD in 2000. ASD can take the form of extra sensory awareness, and higher levels of anxiety or involuntary responses. However, most autistic people say they have their own way of experiencing the world – it’s not a “disorder”. He concludes with a list of design options and different guidelines. It is a lengthy but very useful article that includes acoustics, lighting, thermal comfort and material finishes and furniture. There is a list of references at the end for further reading. What Autism Teaches Us About Design is an easy and comprehensive read on an important topic. 

There’s also the easy to read FastCo article, How to Design for Autism. As with most thoughtful design that aims to be inclusive, convenient and welcoming, designing interiors for children with autism makes for good interiors for children generally. Close attention was paid to texture, acoustics, and lighting conditions—features just as applicable to the rest of the world when it comes to designing autism-friendly spaces. The architect behind the design of the Center of Autism and the Developing Brain says the key is to be sensitive to light, sight, textures, and sounds. The article can be downloaded from the codesign.com website.

Autism and cultural diversity

A brightly coloured logo in the style of a jig saw puzzle for Autism Awareness.People with autism are speaking out, and we are learning more about neurodiversity through practice and research. Consequently, it’s time to look at who is doing the practice and research. Is the family’s cultural background taken into account? If so, do researchers and practitioners know how to adapt? A journal article from the UK sheds a little light on the subject. It’s open access, but you have to request a copy of the paper. The title of the paper is, Autism in Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Communities: A Report on The First Autism Voice UK Symposium

Abstract:  Little is known about the way autism is interpreted and accepted among the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) populations in the United Kingdom (UK). This report summarises a symposium on autism in the UK BAME community in 2018 or-ganised by Autism Voice UK, Participatory Autism Research Collective (PARC) and the Critical Autism/Disabilities Studies Research Group (CADS) at London South Bank University (LSBU).
The stance a family or community take about a condition like autism is influenced by their cultural background. The aims of the symposium were to highlight different perspectives about autism in BAME communities and to preserve the cultural digni-ty of the community in supporting autistic members. Beliefs about autism, diagnosis, acceptance and support for autistic people from a specific cultural perspective of BAME communities must be cautiously interpreted by autism professionals because beliefs vary among different cultural groups.
Thematic analysis of feedback from participants yielded the following foci. Firstly, cultural, ethnic and religious sensitivities were important to participants who felt that these were often ignored by non-BAME professionals. Secondly, the need for col-laboration to improve autism awareness within the community and understanding by professionals of the intersectionality between autism and identity in BAME fami-lies was prioritised. Thirdly, issues around feelings of stigma were common, but del-egates felt that these were not well understood beyond people identifying as BAME. An action plan was created which highlighted raising public awareness through community engagement, improving access to information for parents, and culturally aware autism education for professionals and BAME communities.

Neurodiversity and overseas study

A young man in a blue academic outfit is smiling at the camera and is giving the thumbs up sign. Many courses include overseas study either as an option or a compulsory part of the program. This is because cultural exchange is considered a valuable enhancement to the overall education of the student. But what about students with autism? An article on this topic reminds us that people with autism, with the right accommodations, can enhance learning programs. This is because they can bring a fresh perspective, another way of thinking. Consequently, there is opportunity to enhance the overseas study experience for everyone. So, making overseas study more inclusive is a win-win all round.  

The article provides two case studies that highlight what makes an overseas exchange a success for people with autism. Such improvements are, in the end, good for all students and educational institutions.  The authors sum up at the end: 

“Both cultural observation and self-evaluation are central objectives of a university’s drive to provide opportunities for cultural competency. Thus, although the participation of students in the autism spectrum poses plenty of challenges, their increasing access to study abroad opportunities could enhance the study abroad experience. As such, while the challenges are many, we move from a framework that adjusts to the needs of these students to an inquiry into the ways in which they can contribute to enrich the study abroad experience. The case studies presented here certainly show how an inclusive program, through proper orientation mechanisms, could be beneficial for all participants’ self-awareness and ability to reflect.”

The title of the article is, How to Run Together: On Study Abroad and the ASD Experience.  In Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad, Vol. XXXII, Issue 2 (January 2020): pp. 104-118.

 

Designing for autism

Floor Plan, Blueprint, House, HomeWell designed buildings support people with physical impairment, but what about people with other sensory issues or cognitive impairment? Shelly Dival argues that we can do more in the built environment to support people on the autism spectrum in educational, work, and home environments.

As a Churchill Fellow, Shelly travelled around the globe in 2018 to gather international knowledge and raise awareness in Australia of how people with autism can benefit from more positive interactions with the built environment. Her report outlines building features requiring further research, including design theories, methods and outcomes. Her findings are also featured in an architecture magazine.

One of her insights was the crossover between autism and other neurological conditions including dementia. Designing for neurodiversity rather than specific conditions may be an effective future-proofing strategy that supports everyone. That’s similar to the approach adopted by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) in their forthcoming Guidelines on cognitive accessibility, based on the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework.  

Barriers to employing autistic adults

Logo for Aspect CapableIf there is a supportive environment, many autistic people could be employed. Indeed, they could flourish and be an asset to the workplace. Employers need to know what sort of adjustments are needed so they can reach their potential. Often they are really simple, particularly if thinking from a universal design perspective. An interesting and informative article from London South Bank University covers the topic comprehensively. The open access article can be downloaded in Word from the university website. The title of the article is “Identifying and Addressing Barriers to Employment of Autistic Adults”. In the UK they have The Equality Act and The Autism Act which emphasise access to work. Good to see this topic being covered.

Aspect Capable website has more information on a Australian initiative and the video shows how autistic people can achieve in the workplace.