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Supporting students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in higher education through the design of the built environment

conference contribution
posted on 2023-05-24, 15:59 authored by Ceridwen OwenCeridwen Owen, Damhnat McCannDamhnat McCann

The number of students with ASD entering higher education is increasing and there is growing awareness of the specific challenges that these students face. Recent research has highlighted the need to extend traditional academic supports to meet the complex and idiosyncratic needs of students with ASD.


One aspect of support that has received very little attention is the design of the built environment. Despite tertiary education institutions becoming increasingly sensitive to the needs of a diverse student intake in relation to the provision of equitable access to facilities, current guidelines remain restricted to issues of physical disability including mobility, vision and hearing impairment. Yet for individuals with ASD, the built environment can be equally disabling.

Main points

Drawing on the results of a photo-interview study we show how the built environment is a substantial factor in the experience of students with ASD, affecting academic performance, social inclusion and health and wellbeing more broadly. Key issues include sensory overload from acoustic and visual stimuli, difficulties navigating campus environments, anxiety over forced social interaction and social isolation caused by self-exclusion from campus facilities such as the library and cafeteria.


There are numerous opportunities to improve the experience and academic outcomes of students with ASD through relatively minor modifications to the design of higher education facilities. However, it is critical that greater visibility is given to these issues by expanding normative understandings of equity and access in design guidelines.


The research was undertaken as part of a larger funded project and received full ethics approval. A number of ethical safeguards were employed to ensure informed consent and to maintain confidentiality and privacy. Specifically, in relation to the photo-interview study, participants had complete control over which photographs were taken and used. A detailed consent form gave participants the opportunity to identify any photographs that could not be used for publications and presentations. All participants gave consent for all photographs to be used for dissemination. Names have not been used to protect confidentiality.


National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education, Curtin University


Publication title

XI Autism-Europe International Congress Conference Programme


session S17


School of Architecture and Design

Event title

XI Autism-Europe International Congress

Event Venue

Edinburgh, Scotland

Date of Event (Start Date)


Date of Event (End Date)


Repository Status

  • Restricted

Socio-economic Objectives

Learner and learning not elsewhere classified

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