Developing frameworks for Specialist (Autism) Mentoring in Higher Education

Lead Research Organisation: University of Birmingham
Department Name: Education


There has been a remarkable increase in autistic students attending university; from 60 UK university students in 2003, to 11,015 students in 2018. Support for autistic students in the UK comes via the Disabled Students Allowance to engage a Specialist (Autism) Mentor to provide 'highly specialist, specifically tailored, one to one support which helps students address barriers to learning'.

With the increase in the numbers of autistic students, and following national research agendas that seek to put participatory principles into action, there has been development of work that empowers autistic students in advocating for accessible university systems, but analysis still finds little or no literature on optimising Specialist (Autism) Mentoring support. Pilot studies have shown the worth of such programmes, with good mentors developing tailored partnerships to bridge the individual to university systems. Students have reported high levels of satisfaction with the Specialist (Autism) Mentoring offered, in particular mentees have reported empowerment through a 'person-centred ethos' with mentees 'appreciated for themselves rather than modified to fit in'.

To this end this research asks, what are the themes inherent to good Specialist (Autism) Mentoring?

Phase 1

Following a scoping survey seeking a national picture via university disability officers of the UK's 130 universities, a monthly online structured diary will be solicited to representative mentees and mentors to capture the themes that are discussed in mentoring sessions.

Phase 2

Permission will be sought to interview mentees and mentors. Interviews will be thematically coded and consolidated into a thick description of mentoring which will be considered by the participants in the following phase.

Phase 3

Co-creating knowledge with autistic expertise is a robust method for understanding the social interplay inherent in the mentoring relationship. A participatory panel of autistic students, mentors and academics and allied mentors and disability practitioners, will be recruited. Anonymised data from the preceding phases will be shared with these groups who will be tasked with linking of semantic and latent themes. These conversations, and the participants' own experience of
university, will form the basis of a framework for mentors to adopt.


Universities will have a mechanism for ensuring excellent provision of mentoring. Specialist (Autism) Mentors will be provided clarity in their task and be empowered to share their experience with academics. Furthermore, these themes of mentoring should also provide clear expectations of the role to enable recruitment of autistic mentors into the profession. Potentially, neurodiverse campuses will be enhanced through autistic students' advocacy in the design of their own university encounters. It is hoped that the participatory elements of the research design will also challenge the deficit models of autism that mentees face.

Though research is grounded in the experience of autistic students in the UK it will both inform and be informed by the models of peer mentoring projects that are emerging in Canada and Australia, and the college counsellor model prevalent in the US.

Finally, this research also echoes four of the top five James Lind Alliance research priorities for autism. Mentoring is an intervention to improve mental health, an effective support for autistic people, an intervention to reduce anxiety, and provides appropriate support to achieve the best education, life and social outcomes for autistic people. This research contributes to ensuring the success of our growing population of autistic students and their academic communities, moving beyond conceptions of reasonable adjustment towards the universal design of university systems.



Brian Irvine (Student)


10 25 50

Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P000711/1 30/09/2017 29/09/2027
2400640 Studentship ES/P000711/1 30/09/2020 29/09/2022 Brian Irvine