What does it mean to be an independent learner?

Students chatting over coffee

Studying at university involves a lot more independent (self) study than in school or college. In this section we suggest ideas and tasks to help you prepare for this.


Many autistic students welcome the opportunity to follow their interests and passions at university, more intensely than they could at school. To succeed at university you have to learn to sustain your passion at the same time as fulfilling other commitments which may be less interesting.

In addition to studying your favourite subject you might have to study other subjects in order to pass the course.

You may find you have a lot of “free” time on your timetable and it is expected that you use this for independent study. This can be exciting and satisfying for some Autistic students who enjoy working alone. It can also be challenging because there is less structure than many students are used to.

How could this affect me?

If you are doing a science based subject, such as Physics, Engineering or Mathematics, you may be expected to work on your own to complete problems and research projects. You may have several different lecturers or tutors and see each of them only once or twice a week.

If you are doing an arts subject such as History or Philosophy, you may have lectures or seminars for less than 10 hours a week. The rest of the time you are expected to study on your own.

There are lots of other opportunities at university, for example learning a new language, taking part in debates, and drama or music activities. These are great ways to meet people in a slightly structured environment.

Female student at a journals display stand

You also need to build in time for personal care such as eating, sleeping and doing laundry. If you are living away from home for the first time these might be new things to learn.

As student EH says: “Towards the end of the long summer after college, I was eager to start university. The excitement of going far away to study my favourite subject while getting to know new people felt good. It was only a couple of days prior to leaving home, was when I worried about the possibility of not meeting like minded people and failing to properly organise my work and social life.”

Managing these competing demands on your time can be challenging for all students, whether or not they have an autism condition. An effective plan for managing your time can help to provide structure and reduce anxiety.

Check out the activities and links below for ideas on how to plan and manage these different aspects of independent learning.

What to do next?

Develop a plan and strategies for managing your time at university

Practical tips

Develop your study strategies

This is a necessity for all students, and can be particularly challenging for some autistic students:

“As a graduate research student, this is the toughest obstacle to overcome. I work on strategies weekly and have learned to ask for help before I find myself too far behind.”

The Durham Centre for Academic Development offers a range of online modules to help you improve your academic skills. You can try these out from home, even before you become a registered student (see Links below).

There are more ideas from Durham University Specialist Study Support service to help you prepare for the aspects of study you might find difficult or unfamiliar (see Links below).

Access support

If you are eligible to apply for Disabled Students’ Allowances, this can offer additional support such as software to assist with reading or planning written work; a one-to-one support worker who can help you understand university systems and requirements. For more information see the links section below.

One student sums this up: “I did apply, and the lengthy paperwork was worth it. The support has certainly been useful and it has made university life easier because I am able to be more organised now. Also, the mentoring has been excellent.”

Contact Disability Support to find out about the support that can be offered through your department and for examinations.

“Overall Disability Support has been acceptable. The kindness, supportive environment, and  knowledge Disability Support teams embraces empowers me as a student.”

Contact the Departmental Disability Representative for your course (see links below), to ask about specific support you may need.

You will also have an Academic Advisor when you start your course. Find out who they are and make contact with them.

Each College has a student support or welfare team. Find out who they are in your College and how to contact them.

KB reports: “My college was overwhelming at first, but the more effort I put into being involved, the more I got out of the experience. The entire staff has done a great job, and I am very thankful for my St Aidan’s family.”

Know who to ask for help

There are so many people offering to help you, it can become confusing!

This is KB’s experience: “Super overwhelmed by all the information that was push out all at once but impressed with Deb Altman’s knowledge and willingness to help.”

In the Links section below there is a template you can use to list key people or offices and their contact details as you come across them. Keep adding to this and refer back to it to remind you who to contact for different purposes.

Questions to think about

How will you receive messages and contact the people or offices which are essential for your progress?

Most staff at Durham use Email and Microsoft Teams. Student groups use Facebook and other social media. What devices and systems will you use to ensure you have constant, reliable access to electronic communication?

What is your preferred method of communication? Are there any skills or strategies you need to put in place to stay in contact with staff and students across the university?

Are there any independent living skills you need to develop? Think about laundry, cleaning, shopping, getting up in the morning?

How will you make sure you get to the right place at the right time? Do you need a system for setting alarms and reminders?

Two students entering an academic building

How will you get to know people? Think about your current interests and activities, or if there is something you have always wanted to learn or do.

EH says: “College is a perfect environment for making friends who are not on your course. Eating together and going to events with others from your college is what makes university life fun.”

Additional information and links

Durham Centre for Academic Development online learning modules: https://www.dur.ac.uk/academic.skills/

DU Specialist Study Support service: https://www.dur.ac.uk/specialiststudysupport/links/

Applying for Disabled Students’ Allowances: http://www.gov.uk/disabled-students-allowances-dsas (if you are resident in England)

For other Funding Councils follow the links on this page: https://www.dur.ac.uk/disability.support/funding/

Disability Support: http://www.durham.ac.uk/disability.support

Departmental Disability Representatives

Other support services:

Careers and Enterprise Centre: http://www.durham.ac.uk/careers

Counselling Service: http://www.durham.ac.uk/counsel.service

Student Finance Office: http://www.durham.ac.uk/student.finance

Key Contacts – Click here to access a table you can complete

Here are some links to further reading about managing your life as a student:

Research carried out at Durham University into the social and academic experiences of students with autism: http://dro.dur.ac.uk/cgi/export/26041/HTML/dur-eprint-26041.html

Here is Callum, a student at Leeds Beckett University, and in the interview below he explains how he has learnt to manage his studies.

Head and shoulders photo of student





About the author

This article was written by Deborah Altman, Disability Adviser and Study Skills Coordinator at Durham University.