Smoothing the way into further education

Smoothing the way into further education

Mentoring a new student with Asperger’s, ADHD or Tourette’s? Or just want to be a supportive friend? Here’s what you need to know.

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No one knows exactly how many students currently in higher education are affected by one or more of these conditions.

Some prefer not to share their diagnosis; others may not have been diagnosed previously. It’s not unusual for academically able students to function well in the known environment of school and with a support network of friends or family, masking difficulties that surface later in the less structured setting of college or university.

Mentors – often postgraduate or mature students – and peer support groups can play a key role in helping to combat isolation, develop strategies for work and independent living, and keep students on track.

The right support can be the difference between completing a course of study successfully or dropping out, often for reasons that may be unrelated to academic ability or aptitude.

Top tips for supporting students with Asperger’s, ADHD or Tourette’s

  • Allow enough time to get to know each student as an individual and accept someone as they are. People who share a diagnosis may experience very different challenges – strategies and approaches have to be tailored to be effective. Be prepared to try a different approach if something doesn’t work the first time.
  • Be proactive in maintaining contact. This is particularly important in supporting students with Asperger’s Syndrome, who may not ask for help even when they have a problem. They may need someone else to recognise a difficulty has arisen and consider how to address it. Be prepared to take the initiative in making arrangements, developing strategies and tackling problems.
  • A mentor isn’t the same as a friend. Obviously a good relationship is helpful, but mentors may also need to advise, support and sometimes challenge the student they are working with. You should be as clear as possible in establishing boundaries, bearing in mind people with Asperger’s and some people with ADHD may find social cues around friendships and relationships difficult to interpret.
  • Communicate clearly and check you have been understood correctly. Particularly where someone is very high functioning, it may be easy to overestimate how well they are able to process, retain and apply information. It’s always a good idea to invite them to recap what has been discussed, make a written note of any agreed actions, and if necessary provide prompts or reminders.
  • Be aware of the bigger picture. This might include taking into account someone’s sensory issues or stress factors, or being aware of other agencies involved in their support. With the person’s permission, families can be an important source of information or additional support – maintaining appropriate confidentiality needn’t automatically exclude the wider support network.
  • Focus on work planning and organisation. Poor time management, procrastination and being distracted by other interests or activities are common. Mentors can help with prioritising tasks and time planning, and by holding someone accountable. Be prepared to explore reasons for low motivation – anxiety due to lack of understanding calls for a different approach than for plain boredom. It’s also common to find difficulty in gauging how much depth is called for in researching a topic and completing assignments, which can increase pressure and stress.
  • Support the development of life skills. Sometimes students cope with the academic demands of college life, but struggle to manage essential everyday tasks such as washing clothes, food shopping and responding to emails. The focus may need to be less on assignments and more on building capacity, increasing confidence and developing independence.
  • Flag up concerns. Depression and anxiety are common experiences for young people with these conditions. If you have concerns about someone’s mental health, or about their use of prescribed medications, alcohol or drugs, let the appropriate authorities know immediately.

Useful sources of information

  • Tourettes Action has a factsheet Guidance for people with TS going to university, available to download here.
  • AADD-UK has information about university and college issues for people with ADHD here.
  • The National Autistic Society has a wealth of information on starting college or university here while Scottish Autism has information on supporting the transition from school to university here.