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What do neurodivergent students want from university?

21 March 2023

Unite Students has today published ‘An asset, not a problem: Meeting the needs of neurodivergent students’, a report on the experiences of students who are autistic and/or have ADHD, created in collaboration with students from Bristol University Neurodiversity Society (BUNS).

Based on both data from our 2022 Applicant Index and student focus groups, the report explores the transition to university, living in student accommodation, and their support needs – so here are some top-line findings.




Pre-arrival anxieties

It’s common for students to be both excited and anxious before they arrive for their first term at university, and for students with ADHD and autistic students, the anxieties can be particularly heightened.

In line with existing research, our 2022 Applicant Index found that neurodivergent applicants were more likely to have learning disabilities, physical disabilities, and mental health conditions than their neurotypical counterparts, particularly when it came to depression and anxiety – although they reported the same level of life satisfaction as the wider student population. Neurodiverse students were also more likely to agree with the statement ‘I am anxious that I won’t fit in at university’, and less likely to agree that they had people to turn to in a crisis.


How much information?

In the focus group, there was a balance to be struck between students’ desire for information prior to arrival and their capacity to process lots of information. There was a strong need for photographs, videos and floor plans so they could visualise their accommodation, without which they could become anxious. However, many found it difficult to process a high volume of information from their university prior to arrival which was sent at different times and from different parts of the university.

This could lead to them missing vital administrative tasks: “When I was moving to uni, there were so many emails coming out… and it turned out when I got here, I had missed some really important things like registering as a student… There was a ton of stuff I just hadn’t seen.” Summary checklists were suggested as a more accessible form of communication.

Additionally, some students had found the multi-departmental nature of universities confusing to process and navigate when they had an issue.


Sensory issues

A core theme from the focus group was that of sensory issues affecting their accommodation experience. Noise was a particular concern, whether it was from flatmates, adjoining flats, traffic outside or even lights or heating within their room. Bright lights also emerged as a common issue, being likened to a ‘hospital’ environment. Sensory overload could lead to panic attacks and meltdowns, and significantly affected quality of life.

Compounding these challenges was the fear of feeling misunderstood, judged or not taken seriously by staff members when reporting maintenance issues and needs around, for example, noise and lighting. Some students had been perceived as ‘problematic’ for making their requests and had either consequently been deterred from seeking support, or worried about how future asks would be seen by others.


Safety in numbers

The neurodivergent students in the focus group felt particularly nervous about who they might be living with at university prior to arrival, particularly among those who were also LGBTQ+. This could compound feelings of being different, which many had experienced through their childhood: “I was put with nine other people. None of them share anything in common with me. None of them are neurodivergent. None of them are queer.” This could lead to the students withdrawing, for example not feeling able to use their shared kitchen.

However, the students – who were all members of Bristol University Neurodiversity Society – had felt substantial benefits from being part of a student-led neurodiverse group. There was a security in being part of a majority, and being able to be fully themselves without worrying about neurotypical judgement.


What now?

The full report features 15 recommendations, requested by neurodivergent students, for universities and accommodation providers. We hope that the report will raise awareness and start conversations within the sector about supporting autistic students, students with ADHD and other forms of neurodiversity.

At Unite Students, we’re making it easier for students joining us this September to tell us about any disabilities and health conditions they may have, and our Student Support team are keen to support these students with any adjustments they may need – including a more inclusive events programme, taking note of some of the needs of neurodiverse students.

We’re also looking into how we can build some of the recommendations into our new product specification in future.


Download the full report here.

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