View all news

Understanding autism support and its impact

27 July 2022

The University of Bristol is increasingly interested in supporting autistic and neurodiverse people, and as part of this there is a growing programme of research into the experiences of these members of our community. Bristol researchers, Felicity Sedgewick and Laura Hull, explain the latest studies in this area.

Around 1 in every 100 people in the UK is autistic (or on the autism spectrum). Autistic people often have differences or difficulties in interacting, communicating and processing the world, compared to non-autistic people. They therefore can require support to thrive, and PolicyBristol have recently funded two projects looking into different aspects of the support available to them.

Social Skills Support

One of the most common types of support offered to autistic people is social skills training. This includes a wide variety of interventions that aim to help autistic people to develop their social skills and, in some cases, to reduce their autistic behaviours or show more non-autistic behaviours. However, recent research suggests that some interventions have limited positive impacts and may in fact be harmful. This research project aimed to learn more about autistic adults’ experiences of social skills training in the UK, to identify what kind of support they feel would be best.

We interviewed 11 autistic adults about their experiences of social skill training, using Zoom video or chat messaging. Most of our participants had been diagnosed with autism in adolescence or adulthood. Participants described a range of interventions including social groups, training within other healthcare settings, and informal training such as advice from others, doing theatre or comedy, and teaching themselves social skills. We have included some quotations from participants here.

What do autistic adults think about the support that is currently available?

Participants described learning some useful skills, such as making conversation, however many felt the training did not provide them with real-life skills to address issues in adult life. Participants wanted more support for specific needs or situations, and noted that their support needs changed as they went from childhood to adulthood.

“When you go to bars and stuff like that… it’s completely different from what they were teaching us”.

I wanted to be able to have it, so that I could practice in an actual setting and receive actual feedback of ways to improve”

What kind of support do autistic adults think should be offered?

Participants suggested that social skills support should be offered to autistic people, as it can be helpful and allow autistic people to fulfil their potential. However, participants also felt that they should be able to choose what they learn and it should be taught by other autistic people.

It needs to be individualized, like there should be a conversation at the start about what you would find helpful

it needs to be is something that adapts to them and builds with and works with them

What does this mean?

These findings suggest that many autistic adults are not happy with the social skills support they are currently offered. In particular, they would like support to be available but not compulsory, and for it to be tailored to individuals’ needs and preferences. Organisations seeking to provide support, such as universities or healthcare services, should work with autistic people to develop and deliver social skills support that addresses real-life scenarios. Even if autistic people have received social skills training in the past, they may wish to have additional support as they get older and enter new social environments, such as college, university, or the workplace.

University Autism Policies

Another project, funded by PolicyBristol, was an investigation of the current state of autism policies at higher education institutions across the UK. Autistic students make up around 2.4% of all students at UK universities, which is a notable minority. Considering the well-recognised support needs of autistic students, many report that they do not get the adjustments they require, and that they sometimes face stigma or ignorance about autism from university staff.

We looked into what formal policies there were at different universities which outlined the support autistic students could expect, and to see whether this offer was similar across the UK. We also looked into what evidence there was of interest in autistic and neurodiverse students, such as through societies or research.

What did we do?

Using The Times Higher Education University Guide as a list of 132 recognised universities in the UK, we used the ‘search’ function on each website to look for any publicly accessible information they had about:

  • Autism policy
  • Autism support
  • Autism society
  • Autism adjustments
  • Autism career
  • Autism diagnosis
  • Autism preparation
  • Autism inclusion
  • Disability adjustments
  • Neurodiversity society

What did we find?

We found that all universities on the list had some mention of autism or autistic students on their webpages, but that the amount and the detail varied widely.

What does this mean?

This initial scoping study shows that many universities in the UK do not have focussed autism policies, and that it is quite difficult to find out what sort of support will be available to autistic students before they arrive. The significant differences between universities also suggest that autistic students at different universities are not necessarily getting equitable support, which may make things like finding later employment more difficult, or may negatively affect their mental health. There is clearly a lot of interest in thinking about autistic people and their lives, but this is not yet making it into university practices.

What next for these projects?

Social Skills Support

We plan to conduct a more thorough analysis of the interviews, to focus on what types of support should be offered for people at different ages and stages of life. We will discuss these findings with autistic people and share the results with various organisations who currently provide or recommend social skills training, including NHS services, autism support groups, and individual clinicians/therapists.

University Autism Policies

We are planning to carry out a second round of analysis, looking at the actual content of the policies we have identified, to work out what different universities are offering to autistic students. We will publish both studies as an academic paper, and write up an easy-access summary to be shared on the University of Bristol website and social media. The team then hope to do a piece of work where we use what we have learned, in partnership with neurodivergent students, to make a set of guidelines for UK universities as to the sorts of policies they should have and how to make these accessible for students looking to decide where to study their degrees.

Further information

Find out more about our autism research in our interactive infographic

Watch our films on mental health research

Find out about our Mental Health in Young People research initiative

Read about masking in autism

Hear from one autistic student about their experiences in our blog: Autism at University – being an autistic student

Listen to a Research Frontiers podcast on the psychology of education


Edit this page