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In this weeks blog we hear from Danika Findley, who is the Lead Autism Specialist Mentor at De Montfort University. Dani talks to us about her work at the University and how the Autism Team supports autistic students at the University to socialise and generate friendships. Autism East Midlands have been working in partnership with De Montfort University to provide autism awareness training and are currently supporting students with mentors via the Disabled Students Allowance, which you can learn more about here.

De Montfort University’s undergraduate year finished on June 14th, which has given us time to take stock on what can only be described as a very busy but rewarding year.

This year at De Montfort University we welcomed over a 100 new autistic students onto campus, bringing our total number of autistic students we support to over 300.

I was also welcomed as a new member of the team, in my role as Lead Autism Specialist Mentor to help manage and run the Disabled Student’s Allowance process that we offer at De Montfort University.

At the beginning of the year we ran our four day residential event, New to DMU, where we hosted 27 prospective autistic students onto campus to see what university life is really like. During the event the students get to participate in a variety of activities such as a library tour, a workshop on time management and procrastination, cooking your own meal, laser tag and even a scavenger hunt in the city centre of Leicester. Once again, we got positive feedback from the students, including: ‘Amazed at level of support and mentors provided to be able to focus/manage the stresses of the course work/lectures/allocations’ and ‘I’ve enjoyed my whole time here. I can’t wait to come to uni even more now I’ve had this week here. Thank you so much.’

Following on from this I was asked to run a selection of social activities throughout the academic year, with the hope that this would give our Autistic students the chance to meet new people and be able to form friendships. The main part of our social calendar was a lunch club that was ran by myself and Leanne Herbert every Wednesday afternoon from 12pm, where students were able to come along with their lunch, to chat to and meet new people. We hosted the lunch club, in our lovely breathing space, which is an area on campus that is designated to be a calm and relaxing area, away from the hustle and bustle of university life. After an initial slow start, the lunch club became very popular, and on average we had around 11 students each week throughout the year. Needless to say the breathing space stopped being a calm and relaxing area on a Wednesday due to the laughter and non-stop chat from the students.

From the lunch club, we then starting hosting social events off campus, which included cinema trips, a trip to a local board game café, learn to crochet, cooking class and the big finale event was a trip to the Sea Life Centre in Birmingham during Autism Awareness Week.

We were very pleased that so many students got involved with our social activities, and it was great knowing how many students have now built a wide circle of friends. The lunch club regulars have their own group chat on Facebook and WhatsApp and regularly meet outside of our social gatherings!

The feedback we received from hosting the social activities was incredible, including: ‘Wish I had something like this in my first and second year’ and ‘I love that I am able to be around people who get me, and being able to be myself. It’s like our own little society for like-minded people’.
The feedback enables us to see what we are doing right and what we can improve on, I am currently working on a timetable of social events for next year, I will be showing this to the new students at New to DMU to see what they think and if they have any suggestions.

I hope that next academic year is even bigger and better than the last one, starting with asking students to produce a logo for the autism team to use, so far we have a lot of amazing entries and the winner will be announced mid-August, watch this space to see our new logo in the new academic year!

I think the most important thing that has come out of this academic year is the importance of supporting students to socialise with each other, that with this tool it will enable them to thrive at University with a strong support network that is more than just family and the Autism Support Team. I have seen many students this year come out of their comfort zone and make more friends than they ever thought they could. This makes my job so enjoyable and worthwhile knowing students are finding who they are, and trying new things by meeting people they never would have met.

If you want to know more about what we do as the Autism Team, please see our webpage:
DMU Autism Team