How autistic students turned university from a 'daunting' challenge into a place they can flourish

For some autistic Kiwis, going to university can be a daunting challenge, but it can also be a place where they can flourish and nurture their passion.

Twenty-one-year-old Dunedinite Madeliene Harrop has used her experience at Otago University to turn her hobby into a career.

Harrop was diagnosed with autism as a child and also has Tourette's syndrome and anxiety.

She was lucky to grow up in a community that supported and "understands" her, and which allowed her to pursue her love for music through school.

For Madeleine, the decision to study for a Bachelor of Music was a simple one. 

Mads Harrop.
Mads Harrop. Photo credit: Supplied

"I remember in high school when we had all of those career talks, we were given advice to just go down a path that you really enjoy doing - my pathway is music," she told Newshub.

"It's an escape and it's also a form of expression. It's also very therapeutic for me because I'm autistic and find sensory things quite calming."

However, not every autistic university student has a clear pathway after they leave high school.

Twenty-eight-year-old Karleigh-Jayne Jones spent her early adulthood "trying to find" her "feet". 

She initially studied computer science at university but soon realised it wasn't for her and dropped out.

Karleigh-Jayne tried her hand at a work skills course and in animal care before deciding to pursue her passion for advocacy and social policy.

She's now studying Bachelor's of Social Sciences majoring in Psychology and Social Policy part-time at Waikato University's Tauranga campus in the hope of using what she learns to give disabled Kiwis better opportunities and support.

She was bullied as a child and wasn't given adequate support for her learning difficulties and wants no other students to have to go through what she did.

"I want to make it better for people that come after me."

Karleigh-Jayne Jones.
Karleigh-Jayne Jones. Photo credit: Supplied


In 2017, registered psychologist Surrey Jackson wrote for Altogether Autism NZ that autistic Kiwis face a number of challenges when moving into tertiary education. 

"In addition, the very nature of the university setting can exacerbate these issues," she said. 

"Universities lack the structure and routine of other educational settings and they also lack clear instructions as to what students should do and when they should do it. 

"For example when you start university, no one informs you that you may need to create your own timetable, look up required books yourself and find out when and where your own exams are." 

A 2020 UK study found autistic university students face other issues including: 

  • A lack of understanding of autism had prevented universities from being accessible
  • Mental health difficulties, which were often prevalent for several years beforehand, but worsened at university
  • Participants often felt like outsiders and had difficulties in navigating social spaces at university
  • The culture shock of university, including managing independent life and study
  • The need for structure. Many participants described challenges with independent study and found it difficult organising their studies with little guidance
  • The noise and movement on campus significantly impacted participants' ability to cope at university

Madeleine told Newshub the lack of routine was one of the issues she struggled with in the transition from high school to university and she found the experience "daunting".

Other challenges include the extended drive from her home to university.

Karleigh-Jayne said she has issues with written assignments, but she studies part-time to make the workload more manageable.

One thing she is extremely thankful for is Waikato University's Tauranga campus which allowed her to study while living in a really familiar environment.

"It just makes learning and university available to more people. Especially as we get a lot of mature students at the Tauranga campus."


The COVID-19 pandemic was a particularly hard time for many tertiary students around the world as they adapted to online learning and living without the social student life.

For some autistic people, the drastic change in routine is particularly devastating.

"My mental health plummeted and I was going to give up [on university] but with the encouragement of the staff at uni and my family, I kept going," Karleigh-Jayne told Newshub.

Other autistic students have spoken up about issues with learning during the pandemic, including a student in the United Kingdom who said that they felt abandoned by their university.

"Since the coronavirus pandemic unfolded, my university has shown complete disregard for my wellbeing," they wrote in an essay for Times Higher Education.

"I find myself gripped with anxiety, suffering panic attacks induced by my disability, and am unable to complete my remaining assignments. If I cannot complete my assignments, £60,000 and three years of hard work and dedication will be for nothing. My future prospects will be ruined by a crisis I have no control over and an education system that has failed one of its most vulnerable students."

But in comparison, Madeleine thrived off lockdown.

"I know lots of people found the lockdown - particularly autistic people - found it particularly challenging but I didn't find it challenging at all," she said. 

"I actually really enjoyed the first lockdown because I went home and I've got a recording studio at my house and it was very accessible so I was able to record my first EP."


While some students are overwhelmed by the challenges of university, both Madeleine and Karleigh-Jayne have flourished.

"I just love the whole environment," Madeleine said. "Before I came to uni I didn't know whether I would get accepted but now I've started uni I was quite surprised at how easy it is to make friends. It's amazing, it's so cool."

Karleigh- Jayne is also lucky to have great support from her tutors, unlike what she had in her school years.

"Since going to university I've got a really awesome support network. I've opened up possibilities and done a lot of things I wouldn't have done before university."

Her university tutors have pushed her to go further with her advocacy and one of her biggest achievements was making an oral submission to Parliament about the Oranga Tamariki (Youth Justice Demerit Points) Amendment Bill.

"I was against it because you can't put people in a box and that's what the bill was going to do."

When asked about their experiences at university, both students said they were thankful they are autistic.

"It makes me more driven," Madeleine said. "It's just really awesome because I'm able to focus on what I love doing."

She said it's also helped her to "nurture" her love for music and the arts.

"I'm a songwriter and songwriting is hugely beneficial and in a way, my autism and my anxiety and my Tourettes play a huge part in that. Autism has been such a big part of my life and I feel that in a way that autism has shaped me into the songwriter that I am today. As they say - autism is a gift."

Karleigh-Jayne agreed.

"For me, it's a bit of a blessing in a way. I don't think if I wasn't on the spectrum I would have that same passion for advocacy and policy."

Following university, Karleigh-Jayne and Madeleine both want to pursue a career in their field of study.

"I want to keep writing and performing and doing gigs and I also want to do film soundtracks and be a record producer and a session musician," said Madeleine, who is currently in her third year of study.

As for Karleigh-Jayne - "I'm planning to start a social enterprise which aims to empower young disabled people to speak out for themselves. I want to see more disabled people be able to speak up".