Australian Tertiary Education Network on Disability

Pathways15: Equitable learning spaces and deep consultation with students and staff, low impact sensory spaces for optimal design and functionality

Gemma Dodevska, University of Melbourne

Students on the autism spectrum are often extremely academically capable and are subsequently attracted to university education. However, challenges with their social-communication often mask their academic potential and impede their participation in University life, including progression to graduation and transition to employment.

Few supports are available to young autistic adults at University. Arguably, it is at this crucial stage of transition from adolescence to adult life, and from education to employment, that supports are most needed. In addition, people with autism commonly experience sensory overload, heightened levels of anxiety, and the emergence of serious mental ill-health. Combined, these factors can lead to students falling behind, dropping out of study, long term unemployment - or at best underemployment; thus, impacting on their transition into adult life.

Our project, led by Professor of Disability and Inclusion, Keith McVilly explored the development of sensory friendly study spaces with students on the autism spectrum. The project draws from organisational research demonstrating how the provision of small concessions for employees, such as providing a suitable environment, can support increased organisational engagement and commitment.

The aim of this presentation is to share our experiences of developing low impact sensory friendly study spaces with students on the autism spectrum. Navigating the complexities and challenges of the University system, building alliances across organisational units and finding place-based champions supported the discovery of solutions to issues as they arose. Throughout this process we discovered multiple applications across different student cohorts including people with chronic fatigue, people who have experienced trauma and people with a diverse range of physical and mental health challenges.

How the spaces are made available to students most in need and booking systems that maintain student privacy will be discussed. We will also present the mechanisms that support navigation and wayfinding to the spaces to ensure safe and supported use. The process for developing and negotiating naming conventions will also be covered.

Plans for future implementation and upscaling of the initiative in preparation to the support the return to campus life in the new COVID normal will also be discussed.


Gemma Dodevska is an early-career researcher with an interest in supporting the independence and quality of life of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Gemma has over 10 experience working in the Disability sector in Australia, in direct support work, management and project co-ordination roles. Gemma is currently a research assistant in partnership with the Melbourne Faculty of Arts, Disability and Social Inclusion team. Gemma’s current projects relate to autism inclusion at the University of Melbourne, the experiences of support and conflict within families of autistic children and young adults and; the Individualised Supported Living online professional development training program.