Inclusion and Autism in Higher Music Education in England: What are the barriers?

This paper reports doctoral research into the lived experience of Higher Education (HE) music students with a clinical diagnosis of autism in England. Drawing on existing evidence and fieldwork, focusing on autism and music, an intention is to inform and advance notions of institutional inclusion in HE.

Over the past two decades, there has been a noticeable growth in the number of autistic students at university. From 80 disclosures in 2003, now more than 18,820 autistic undergraduate and postgraduate students study in the UK (HESA, 2023). Social inclusion has been a key focus of successive UK governments since the 1970s. With an increasing number of autistic HE students, what are the barriers that autistic students are facing?

While autism is reported to have a low incidence (1%) in the UK population (Brugha, 2011) and 1.76% among school children in England (Roman-Urrestarazu et al., 2021), the pathway to getting a clinical diagnosis of autism in the UK suffers from long waiting lists (Russell et al., 2021). Those HE students who self-reported on the autism spectrum are believed to have already obtained a clinical diagnosis. Nevertheless, some autistic individuals might receive a late diagnosis when other life events bring their autism-related problems to the fore (Boucher, 2017; Russell, 2021). Additionally, autistic women often receive late diagnoses and ‘pretend to be normal’ (Bargiela et al., 2016). In light of the increasing number of autistic students and the rising concern about supporting students with neurodivergence, it is important to understand the voice of autistic HE students.
Drawing on the under-researched area related to autism and music students in HE, this paper uses narrative inquiry to elicit participants’ life stories so as to understand the gap between what happens in the world, i.e., the living conditions and the context of HE, and the internal processing, thinking, and feeling, external influences of autistic musicians. From the students’ voices, this paper shares the barriers they faced and the support they received from HE.

The implications for education of this study suggest there needs to be greater educational support and inclusivity across the lifespan. Hopefully, this paper will inspire neurodivergent HE students, by illustrating, for example, with workaround strategies success in HE can be achieved.