An exploration into autistic students’ experiences of counselling in university settings

  • Nicky Toor

Student thesis: Doctor of Counselling Psychology


Background and aim: The number of autistic students accessing UK universities is on the increase. Nevertheless, these students can find various aspects of university life challenging, and consequently are at increased risk of developing issues (e.g., mental health issues) that may mean they require counselling. Presently, there is a lack of literature relating to autistic students’ experiences of counselling in university settings. The aim of the present study was therefore to explore in depth, from their own perspectives, autistic students’ experiences of counselling in UK university settings and the factors that influence such experiences, in order to better understand and meet their counselling needs. Methodology: Adopting a qualitative approach, this study explored the counselling experiences of ten autistic students from seven UK universities. Semi-structured interviews were conducted, and the data were analysed using thematic analysis to identify salient themes. In order to ensure the trustworthiness of the findings, criteria for evaluating the quality of qualitative research were employed. These were: sensitivity to context; commitment and rigour; transparency and coherence; and impact and importance. Findings: Four major themes were identified: enabling access; fostering therapeutic relationships; approaches and interventions: one size does not fit all; and impact of counselling. It appeared that while a number of factors facilitated autistic students’ access to their university’s counselling service, the service was not always experienced as readily accessible. In addition, despite many of the students reporting difficulties with social communication and interaction arising from autism spectrum condition, the therapeutic relationship was viewed as being of vital importance. Furthermore, there did not appear to be a ‘one size fits all’ approach to counselling autistic university students. Moreover, while all of the students reported experiencing at least some positive change as a result of undergoing counselling, many reported negative experiences of counselling. Such experiences commonly arose from obstacles to access, a therapeutic relationship characterising, for example, judgement and misunderstanding, and an inflexible, rigid approach to counselling that did not address their diverse counselling needs. Conclusion: In order for university counselling services to serve as a valuable resource for autistic students, it is vital that professionals have a thorough understanding of the various ways that the characteristics of ASC can manifest in the context of counselling in UK university settings. Overarching this is the need for professionals to respectfully engage with each individual autistic student, to adapt traditional practices if and when required in accordance with the student’s needs and preferences, and to be aware that the extent and type of adaptations that are made will depend very much on the individual student. Indeed, this is not a straightforward process, but is nevertheless fundamental in ensuring the inclusion of autistic students undergoing counselling in university settings.
Date of Award1 Aug 2019
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorTerry Hanley (Supervisor) & Judith Hebron (Supervisor)

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