Advice about specific conditions for students

What is Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD)?

‘Autism is a lifelong, developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with and relates to other people, and how they experience the world around them.’
(National Autistic Society 2015)

Recent changes to how individuals are diagnosed means they would now be given a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), rather than for example, Asperger’s Syndrome, or PDD-NOS (pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified) etc. However, if individuals were originally diagnosed with these terms they will not lose their diagnosis. A formal diagnosis can only be made by a psychologist or psychiatrist who specialises in this area.

Traditionally, ASD was often described as a ‘triad of impairments’ – a set of three difficulties; social communication, social interaction and social imagination. Currently, diagnosis has been reduced to two domains – social communication and interaction and restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviour, interests or activities. Sensory behaviours are included in this domain.

Those with high functioning ASD often have high ability but may have poor social skills because they cannot always empathise with others. The condition has been colloquially termed ‘mind blindness’ because of the inability to ‘read’ another’s mind.

As with many of the neurological developmental disorders, ASD may co-exist with other conditions such dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, semantic pragmatic disorder and prosopragnosia (inability to recognise faces). People with ASD sometimes experience heightened sensory awareness, perceiving stimuli undetected by others. This can result in sounds, smells, feelings against the skin and lighting becoming intrusive and distracting. They also commonly develop a special interest and expertise in one particular area.

The student with ASD frequently has remarkable strengths. It is common to have an excellent memory, particularly for facts and figures. They can be meticulous, focused and have a good eye for detail and errors. They are also often honest, conscientious, original, creative and good with foreign languages. Many students with ASD work to these strengths and choose subjects like mathematics, science and computing to study at university level.

What is Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)?

ADHD affects around one to two per cent of the population. Individuals with ADHD may vary in how their symptoms present depending on the level of demand on them and characteristics of the environment they are working in (e.g. levels of noise etc). It affects attention and concentration.

Difficulties described by adults are as follows:

  • Impulsivity – could be demonstrated by speaking and acting without thinking, interrupting others, difficulty waiting turn, lack of awareness of the context in which the person is behaving.
  • Hyperactivity – this is more obvious in childhood. In adults this may be observed by a difficulty sitting still, being restless and fidgety such as tapping feet, being over-talkative
  • Inattention – can result in being overly distracted, having poor concentration, difficulty organising themselves and their work without practising and automating procedures, starting but finding it hard to finish tasks, starting a task and missing steps in the instructions.

What is Developmental Co-ordination Disorder (DCD)?

Developmental Co-ordination Disorder (DCD), also known as dyspraxia in the UK, is a motor co-ordination disorder affecting about two to three per cent of the adult population and impacting on everyday life skills. DCD/dyspraxia is distinct from other motor disorders such as cerebral palsy and stroke.

Difficulties described by adults are as follows:

  • May affect everyday life skills e.g. preparing a meal, ironing
  • Difficulties with handwriting
  • Skills requiring balance
  • Slower learning a new skill requiring speed and accuracy
  • Learning to drive a car
  • Organisation, time management and planning skills
  • Taking information down at speed

What is dyslexia?

Dyslexia is the most common Specific Learning Difficulty (SpLD) and affects about eight to ten per cent of the population. Individuals with dyslexia have a history of difficulties with reading and/or spelling. They may also have other difficulties such as organisation, planning and memory. Academic self-esteem can be low.

Difficulties described by adults are as follows:

  • Taking longer to read papers, books etc.
  • Making spelling errors; missing out key words
  • Difficulty with structuring assignments
  • Telling others they have dyslexia and being reluctant to discuss their feelings
  • Feeling confident to ask questions or for help and being reluctant to discuss their difficulties
  • Remembering appointments, deadlines etc, finding their way to or around unfamiliar premises and being on time
  • Remembering to bring necessary paperwork, equipment
  • Remembering verbal instructions
  • Task completion and learning new skills
  • Revision for exams and recall during exams
  • Taking down information accurately whilst listening e.g. on the phone, in lectures.

What is a hearing impairment?

Hearing impairment, or deafness, is when your hearing is affected by a condition or injury. Some people are born with a hearing loss while others may develop it as they get older.

Deaf or hearing impaired students use a range of communication methods that may include speech, sign language, finger spelling, residual hearing and lip reading – and often a combination of these.

Deaf Awareness training is recommended for staff involved with teaching hearing impaired/deaf students. Arrangements can be made via Disability Services.

Mental health conditions

The World Health Organisation defines mental health as follows:

‘Mental health is not just the absence of mental disorder. It is defined as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.’

Therefore, mental health problems occur when there is a disturbance in the way an individual feels, thinks or behaves. If left untreated, this can have implications for the individual’s ability to function, work or maintain relationships.

There is a wide range of mental health conditions which include mood-related disorders, anxiety-related disorders, psychosis, eating disorders and personality disorders.

For further details about specific conditions and support available please refer to Rethink Mental Illness.

What is a mobility impairment?

According to Gardiner & Anwar (2001, p.2) a mobility impairment is one which ‘affects the bones, joints, muscles or nerves that effect movement. The term mobility impairment does not only apply to students who use a wheelchair, but also to those with upper limb disorders such as repetitive strain injuries (RSI) and arthritis, and those with medical conditions limiting mobility. A wide range of conditions may limit mobility, including hand function. These include paralysis, cerebral palsy and amputation.’

What is a visual impairment?

Visual impairment refers to sight loss which is uncorrectable by glasses. The RNIB notes that individuals with a certain degree of sight loss can choose to register as blind or partially sighted, following assessment with an ophthalmologist. 

  • Individuals registered as blind can range from those with no light perception to someone who can read only the top letter of the optician’s eye chart from three metres or less.
  • Individuals registered as partially sighted are only able to read the top letter on the eye chart at a distance of between three and six metres.
  • A fully sighted individual is able to read to top letter of the eye chart at 20 metres.

There are numerous eye conditions which affect people in very individual ways. The RNIB has a wealth of useful information, including an alphabetical list of eye conditions and likely effects.

Visual stress

(formerly called Meares-Irlen Syndrome and Scotopic Sensitivity Syndrome)

What is visual stress?
Some people experience visual discomfort when reading, especially for long periods of time. This discomfort may include blurring and fading of print, movement of words and letters, appearance of patterns in text, fading and glare effect. Visual stress can also cause sore eyes, headaches, and frequent loss of place when reading. These difficulties can also adversely impact on comprehension.

Is visual stress associated with dyslexia?
It used to be thought that people with dyslexia were more likely to have visual stress than people without dyslexia. Current research suggests that this may not be the case and that visual stress occurs evenly across the population.

Does it vary in severity?
Yes, some people find it extremely difficult to read without experiencing significant distortions, especially black letters on white paper. They may only be able to read for a minute or two. At the other end of the spectrum are people who find it easier to read from off-white or cream paper than white. Most of us probably fall into this category – if you think about it, nature does not ask us to look at black and white very much, except zebras and magpies.

Who can diagnose visual stress?
Although some dyslexia specialists and others may have trained as visual stress screeners, we recommend that the student visits an optician which offers this service. This is because the symptoms of visual stress can be due to other optometric causes, such as binocular co-ordination problems. An eye specialist is the best person to determine this.

How can the symptoms be alleviated?
It is important that academic staff are aware of the effects of visual stress. Most of the ways of alleviating symptoms, however, can be carried out by the student.

The two main ways of alleviating symptoms are through the use of coloured overlays and coloured lenses.

  • Coloured overlays. In most cases the symptoms can be reduced or eliminated through the use of coloured transparent overlays. The most appropriate colour will have been determined during the visual stress screening. Transparent coloured rulers and overlays can be purchased from Crossbow Education. There are other suppliers, details of whom can be found on the internet. Permission does not need to be given for coloured overlays to be taken into examination rooms.
  • Coloured lenses. Students who find coloured overlays beneficial may choose to wear coloured lenses. The cost of these is often met through the Disabled Students’ Allowances (DSA).

Students with visual stress may also use the following ways to reduce the effect of symptoms:

  • Use a coloured background on their computer.
  • Increase refresh rate. To minimise visible screen flicker the refresh rate of a computer monitor should be greater than 70Hz.
  • Use natural lighting. Fluorescent lighting often causes difficulties for people with visual stress. Indirect natural lighting (sunlight) and incandescent lighting may be better. Dim lighting is usually preferable to bright lighting.
  • Brimmed hat/visor. Wearing a hat or visor with a dark under-brim can help to reduce the glare from fluorescent lighting. It can also be used in brightly lit conditions (e.g. at the supermarkets), and for studying/reading at home.
  • Book position. The positioning of reading materials may affect the ease of reading. Materials should be: placed directly in front of the person reading; not shared with other readers; angled to avoid glare or reflections.
  • Reading aids. Using a ruler of bookmarker to keep their place in text can aid accuracy and speed. The colour of the marker should be the same as the overlay. It can be used under the line, over the line or after the word being read, to hide the rest of the line.
  • Breaks. Taking regular breaks when reading, writing, or doing any other visually intensive task is important.

Other disabilities and medical conditions

A vast range of conditions can fall within this category. In terms of disability codes and descriptions used by the University, they can fall within the following areas:

  • ‘unseen disabilities’ which can include long-standing illnesses or health conditions e.g. diabetes, epilepsy, cancer, HIV, chronic heart disease etc.
  • ‘disability not listed’ which can include a range of complex, rare or genetic medical conditions.