CfESEND blog: why high aspirations for staff results to high aspirations for learners

Leila Morne, Autism Advanced Practitioner at Weston College

There is a strong ethos within our college of ‘Growth Mindset’, in particular nurturing high aspirations using highly skilled and experienced staff to empower students to overcome barriers, lessen the gap between ambition and fulfilment, building the skills and habits ready to excel as the workforce of the future.

Weston College acknowledges that excellence in academia will not automatically mean success at university for learners with autism or even that they will feel confident to apply in the first place. Leaving home, family and all that is familiar and safe can be daunting for most young people but for individuals on the autism spectrum university entrance may seem like an impossible dream or a predictable nightmare.

Anxiety about leaving home

Leaving home and dealing with the demands of university life present challenges which can often lead to learners with autism dropping out within the first term. In particular, understanding social situations and interpreting the actions of others is always challenging. People with autism usually want to be sociable but have difficulty with initiating and sustaining social relationships. This can cause high levels of anxiety, resulting in the use of avoidance tactics. There is also usually some difficulty with organisational skills, age-appropriate behaviours and many individuals cite sensory issues as problematic.

The difficulties that are sometimes associated with an autism diagnosis can mean that accepting a place at university is often a highly anxious journey into the unknown. An effective means of reducing anxiety and ensuring success is through experiential learning. An autism specific ‘dual curriculum’ affords learners the opportunity to gain the necessary skills and understanding for meaningful participation in ‘university life’.

Support for learners with SEND

To support this, the college has developed and invested in a new initiative that is focussing on preparing learners with autism to successfully progress into higher education (HE), through an immersive experience of living in an HE halls of residence as a transitional year alongside HE learners.

Learners engage in exciting opportunities to gain relevant, age appropriate, real life experiences which stretch and challenge them to exceed their expectation by developing the independence, social and communication skills needed. The new programme is largely experiential with students learning new skills by ‘doing’ tasks rather than listening to someone telling them how to do a task. Some of these include:

  • Independence training, shopping, cooking, washing, ironing, cleaning etc
  • Money management
  • Study skills: use of library; organisational skills; VLE; etc
  • Digital technology – accessibility – chat bots – Apps
  • Social skills training through accessing an extensive range of activities in the local and surrounding areas
  • Visits to universities and cities
  • The application process (UCAS)
  • Student finance application
  • DSA/ University disability teams
  • Keeping safe socially, personally and online
  • Using public transport
  • Driving lessons
  • Employability training for part time / temp jobs whilst at university.

Many areas of the programme involve new experiences and unfamiliar environments. In most cases, these experiences are supported by young people trained as peer mentors by highly qualified Specialist Autism Practitioners e.g., going out in the evening to clubs/ pubs, joining sports’ clubs/ gyms and accessing local community facilities.

There is an ethos of encouragement and expectation of successful outcomes for learners that is underpinned by a specialist autism curriculum designed to support learners’ individual needs and promote independence.

Learners who find it challenging to cope with the social aspects of ‘university life’, are facilitated in doing so. It is imperative that these skills are taught in order to ensure successful transition to university, future employment and that individual aspirations are achieved.

Case study: Bethan

Bethan joined the college in 2019 and had achieved the academic entry requirements for university, with an unconditional offer for the following year. Bethan has autism and required high levels of specialist support in order to develop her social and communication skills, which she found extremely challenging outside of her family environment. Her self-esteem was low and she had no experience of staying away from home with friends or the extended family.

Our staff worked with Bethan to co-create her timetable, building her confidence in initiating conversations with her peers, appropriate social interactions, maintaining meaningful friendships and developing her independence through the social activities calendar and residential training opportunities. She started by staying overnight one night a week and gradually increased to week- long stays so the intensive training she received prepared her for university life within a halls of residence.

Bethan is now ready to progress on to study a combined undergraduate and master’s degree: MSc Physics and Philosophy at the University of Bristol in September 2022 and has already visited her new halls of residence. She is really excited about beginning this new chapter in her learning journey and achieving her aspirations.

Summer break

We wish all our colleagues who we have been working with in our Communities of Practice and Leadership Hub, a very restful and enjoyable summer after what has been an extremely challenging year. We will be continuing to offer support throughout the summer period on a 1:1 basis, small group discussions and our regular webinars to share effective practice. 

All our webinars are recorded so visit the SEND site on the Excellence Gateway if you would like to catch up on what you may have missed.

We are keen to hear from anyone who would like to work collaboratively with the Centres for Excellence in SEND, so please do email us with your suggestions and ideas: CfESEND@weston.ac.uk.

Bookings for all courses and events are via the ETF Course booking system which can be found at ETF Course bookings.

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