Speech at the DCU Award for Autism Friendly University
DCU St. Patrick's Campus, Drumcondra, 22 March 2018
Today, as we celebrate the award to Dublin City University, by AsIAm, of the very first Ireland and Europe’s first autism friendly campus, we are taking part in a landmark event in not only the history of Irish education but in the history of education across Europe. I am delighted to be here to celebrate this important recognition of DCU as an Autism Friendly University. It is a greatly proud moment for our country and a very significant step towards our becoming a more ethical, just and inclusive society, where obstacles to full participation by citizens have been removed.
Nuair atá ionchuimsiú sóisialta i gceist le sochaí, tuigeann daoine an luach a mbaineann leo, go nglactar lena ndifríochtaí agus go gclúdaítear a riachtanais bunúsacha le go mbeidh siad in ann maireachtáil le dínit agus go mbeidh siad in ann a bheith ina saoránaigh rannpháirteacha.
[A socially inclusive society is one where all people feel valued, their differences respected, and their basic needs met in order that they might live in dignity and become truly participative citizens.]
For too many years, however, the responsibility has been placed on autistic citizens to shape their lives, their expectations and their hopes around a society into which they do not neatly fit; a society that has not adequately remodelled itself into one that is fully inclusive of its autistic members, that welcomes their participation and nurtures their possibilities. It is a society that has imposed unfair limitations on autistic citizens who comprise at least one percent of its members; erecting unnecessary barriers against their full involvement in education, in the workforce and in so many other areas of societal and community life.
We have, of course, witnessed some positive developments in recent decades. Better diagnosis has led to significant improvements in our awareness and understanding of autism and, in the field of education, provision of supports for autistic pupils in primary and post-primary schools has seen a marked improvement. As a consequence, approximately 86% of autistic children in Ireland now attend mainstream schools.
That is a greatly encouraging development. However, while third-level colleges offer assistance for any student with a disability - and it is important to acknowledge that, there has, up to now, been no dedicated response to meeting the needs of autistic students.
The increased focus we have witnessed on the needs of autistic children is positive and uplifting. We must remember, however, that those needs do not end at the school gate.
Autistic children become Autistic adults who continue to have potential that must be nurtured, possibilities that need enabling, a voice that is entitled to be heard, and skills, talents and gifts that can enrich our society.
The adult world, therefore, needs to be more welcoming towards autistic citizens, ensuring they receive the same opportunities to thrive and flourish as all their fellow citizens.
The transition from school to college or university can present a challenge for any young person. But for those with an autism spectrum disorder the move from the routine and structured environment of secondary school to the far less schematised environment of higher education can present particular challenges.
Non-obligatory attendance at lectures, and lack of regular contact hours can make it difficult for autistic students to connect with fellow students, make friends and become a part of the college community.
For some autistic students, organising and managing their time in a way that allows them to meet assignment deadlines can also be problematic, while others may have difficulties negotiating their way around the college systems and facilities.
If a third level education is to be made fully accessible to autistic school leavers, and become for them a gateway into a fulfilled adult life, it is important that our third level institutions re-imagine and reconstruct themselves and change the way in which they operate.
Indeed, it is greatly encouraging to learn that the research report conducted here in DCU sets out eight principles which constitute a model to which every University should subscribe in order to become a welcoming environment for autistic students:
Encourage and enable autistic students to transition into and participate in university programmes.
Support and build capacity to equip autistic students to meet the academic challenges of everyday university life.
Support and build capacity to equip autistic students to meet the social challenges of everyday university life.
Seek to establish an Autism friendly operational environment.
Seek to combat the stigma around Autism and recognise the diverse experiences of those with the condition.
Develop understanding and relevant knowledge and skills within the University community.
Establish channels so that autistic students can have a voice in various aspects of university life.
Increase employability of autistic graduates, through a range of initiatives that will help develop their soft skills to support their transition beyond University.
These principles carry the qualities of an inclusive society by being flexible, understanding and by helping to foster a sense of belonging. I greatly hope that they will be adopted by all of Ireland’s third level institutions.
They are also principles that have a dual focus, aiming not only to change college cultures but also, and very importantly, to enable autistic students to access the world of work.
It is greatly worrying, and indeed a serious indictment of a society which aspires to be a fully democratic one, to learn that over eighty percent of those on the autistic spectrum are either unemployed or employed in work that does not reflect their level of skill, education or talent.
That is a sobering statistic, one which speaks of a serious failure to recognise the abilities and potential of so many citizens on the autistic spectrum, and the valuable contribution they can make to our workplaces, to our economy and to our society.
As an autism friendly university, DCU has committed to providing a range of supports for students on the autism spectrum that will serve as a springboard to employment following graduation.
It is equally important however that our workplaces adapt and reshape themselves in order to accommodate autistic staff, that co-workers are educated and can recognise and understand autism, be aware of some of the common manifestations of the condition and do not isolate, belittle or even, as has been reported, bully autistic colleagues. It is also important that employers make themselves aware of all the barriers, both physical and sensory, that stand between autistic people and meaningful employment – barriers such as a dislike of noise and varying degrees of difficulty with communication and social interaction.
We know that education is the gateway to better opportunities and life outcomes for students from all target groups. Recent data published by the Association of Higher Education Access and Disability (AHEAD), shows that over 5% of all students in higher education have been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome or Autism.
The education sector therefore, has a pivotal role to play in the formulating of policies to address inclusion and diversity across the entire spectrum of education, and create a society in which autistic citizens are enabled to realise their possibilities and make their unique contribution.
Crafting an Autism Friendly University is an inspiring example of how we, as a society, can create opportunities, challenge preconceptions, help to transform our campuses and workplaces and ultimately become a more inclusive nation.
Is é mo ghuí é gurb é inniu an tús le saol níos fearr, in Éireann agus san Eoraip, do dhaoine uathacha, saol in a mbeidh institiúidí tríú leibhéal, comhlachtaí agus gnólachtaí sásta prionsabail an Dearadh Uilíoch do chách a ghabháil chucu.
[It is my great hope that today will mark the beginning of a new and better landscape for autistic people in Ireland and Europe, one in which third level institutions, companies and businesses will embrace more and more the principles of universal design for all.]
In conclusion may I commend all those whose combined efforts have seen Dublin City University receive Accreditation as an Accessible, Welcoming and Empowering University. I thank Professor Brian McCraith for his generous support of this important initiative, the researchers, staff, and students here at DCU who have played, and will continue to play a role, in ensuring that this University will be a place of welcome and belonging for autistic students and, of course, AsIAm and in particular its founder Adam Harris for the vision and expertise they have brought to this important initiative.
Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.