Quiet spaces designed to reduce the sensory load on autistic students on campus have been unveiled at the Technological University of the Shannon in Athlone.
Located in the main campus library, students’ union hub, and engineering building, the quiet spaces are fitted out with specialist furniture which promotes a sense of calm and reduces anxiety.
Unveiling the quiet spaces, enator Micheál Carrigy, chair of the Oireachtas Committee on Autism, said inclusivity in higher education was “key” and emphasised the importance of having supports in place to enable autistic students to “maximise their ability and get that qualification”.
“Knowing that TUS has these quiet spaces and supports in place for autistic students, it means a lot,” he said, “particularly for parents to know that when their child goes to college, they will get that wraparound service.”
He continued, “As a father of a son with autism, I’m looking into the future, and I want to see him progress as much as he can within education, and to have a facility like this quite close to home, it is fantastic.”
According to Lisa Hanlon, disability officer at TUS, it is extremely important that autistic students have a place where they can go to get a break if they feel overwhelmed or stressed.
“A lot of students with autism ‘mask’, which means they try their best all of the time to fit in with the neurotypical environment, which can be exhausting for them.
“Autistic people’s brains process their surroundings differently from their non-autistic peers, often making them more sensitive to their sensory surroundings”, she explained.
“Class can be loud and busy; there can be a lot going on and a lot of people moving about on campus at any given time. These quiet spaces are purposely located in low traffic areas, where autistic students can escape to, sit down and recharge until they are ready to re-join their peers.”
TUS’s VP for Student Education and Experience Frances O’Connell said this is about providing “person-centred support” and adapting the university environment to make it more accessible to and inclusive of autistic students.
“Nationally, we’re seeing year-on–year increases in the numbers of students with autism. It is fantastic to see those students entering third level and we wanted to make adaptions to ensure TUS is welcoming to these students,” she said.
“Our goal is to broaden participation in higher education and to do that we need to make sure it is accessible to all. The launch of our new quiet spaces today is yet another example of the actions we are taking to break down barriers to higher education and ensure all students feel fully supported from the moment they walk through our door.”
“This is about giving them the tools they need to thrive,” she added.
Earlier this year, TUS launched a special ‘Autism&Uni’ toolkit with the aim of helping autistic students navigate the transition to third level.
The toolkit, available online, is packed full of guidance, information, and strategies to help autistic students in overcoming commonly faced challenges.