One in seven university students report having ADHD or being autistic, new study reveals

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

 A major new report on student experience and neurodiversity shows more than 14 per cent of current university applicants report having Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and/or are autistic.

The report ‘An asset not a problem: Meeting the needs of neurodivergent students’ is based on a survey of more than 2,000 university applicants across the UK, as well as a focus group with neurodivergent students currently studying at University of Bristol.

The survey found autistic applicants and applicants with ADHD are more likely to have a range of specific learning disabilities, including dyslexia, dyscalculia, or dyspraxia. The report also found that just over half (52%) have experienced depression recently, and almost two thirds (63%) have experienced anxiety in the last two years – both statistics being above the average for all applicants. Neurodivergent applicants were also more likely to have experienced OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), eating disorders, personality disorders and PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder).

Unite Students, the UK’s largest provider of student accommodation, shared the findings with universities to coincide with Neurodiversity Celebration Week (13th-19th March 2023).

The report, which was created to help ensure neurodiverse students are getting the support they need while at university, reveals neurodivergent applicants’ experience of student accommodation is often impacted by sensory issues. Noise problems are a key theme but other sensory issues, such as sensitivity to light, also play a significant role for many. The need for privacy in accommodation was also highlighted.

One student, who spoke to researchers as part of the focus group, said:

“Something I struggle with a lot is sensory overload. If there’s too much going on, then I can go completely haywire”

Other neurodivergent applicants say they would benefit from an accurate visualisation of their student accommodation prior to arrival.

Another student, who spoke to researchers, said:

“Having as much detail as possible of where you’re living, maybe a floor plan, maybe a video tour, just so we can prepare ourselves for what’s to come and how we’re supposed to live in this space – because change as a neurodivergent student is really hard – these little things would really help us adjust.”

Yet sometimes, neurodiverse students felt anxious about raising issues and talking about the support they need due to fear of being thought of as a problem.

Another student told researchers:

“Neurodivergent students are assets to the universities and our access needs, and our problems should be accepted. We’re not trying to be problematic, we’re not trying to be difficult. We just want to attend university like everybody else and work towards our own futures.”

Unite Students, which provides homes for 70,000 students across 23 UK cities each academic year, will use the report’s findings and recommendations to improve the accommodation experience for neurodivergent students - this will include additional training for staff. As part of its proposed future investment in digital technology, prospective students will be able to access a higher level of detail about their room and the layout of the property prior to arrival.

Richard Smith, Chief Executive at Unite Students, said:

“At the heart of our values is the ambition to be welcoming and inclusive to all students. We will use the report’s findings to improve the experience of neurodivergent students who live with us. This report will provide valuable information for both the higher education and purpose-built student accommodation sectors - and our hope is that it will ultimately improve the wider experience for all neurodiverse students.”

John de Pury, Assistant Director at Universities UK (UUK), said:

“With the right understanding and support, neurodivergent students can thrive and flourish at university. UUK welcomes this research by Unite Students setting out practical interventions to improve the university experience of this large and underserved group.”

The data in this report was captured in July 2022 as part of Unite Students’ Applicant Index survey of 2,038 university applicants planning to start an undergraduate degree in the 2022-23 academic year. The survey was administered via the YouthSight Panel.

The report is available to download here.