Invisible disabilities and conditions at university: a guide to settling in
Making friends, settling in, and getting the support you need
If you have an invisible disability or condition, settling in at university might present additional challenges. We’ve outlined some of the support you can access both within and outside of university.
N.B. The advice in this guide might also be useful to those with additional educational needs, such as students with Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, Developmental Coordination Disorder, Dyscalculia, Dysgraphia, Attention Deficit Disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.
Before you apply
Before you make your university choices and apply, it is worth considering whether this university will be the right fit for you. Will you feel more comfortable living in a busy city, or a small town? On campus, are there quiet spaces you can access if you need to? And will there be ways to meet other students who are also living with an invisible disability or condition? An open day is the best way to get a sense of the campus and its surroundings - especially if you are going to be living on-site.
Take a look at our Know-how library guides (listed at the bottom of the page) before applying.
Your disability support plan
It is the law in most countries for universities to attempt to meet your specific needs as a person with a disability, if these needs create a significant disadvantage for you (see our guide below on disability rights in the UK, for example).
If you feel comfortable disclosing your disability to your university, it is a good idea to do this as early as possible. In many universities, the disabilities office will offer to work with you in advance on a suitable plan to meet your needs. You can also discuss with them who will be notified about your disability with your adviser.
If appropriate, and if made in good time, you can ask for the plan to be shared with your teaching staff before you begin your course. It’s a personal choice, but in some situations it can be useful for your teaching staff to understand the way you learn. For example, if you have dyslexia, they will then know to judge your work on its content rather than your spelling abilities.
It’s never too late to disclose information about your mental health if you want to receive support. If you choose to tell the university, you can contact the disabilities office. An adviser can work with other departments on your behalf after you agree on which information you want or need to share. All university and college student support teams offer confidential support and advice, and many have specialist mental health advisers.
Remember, you’re not on your own: according to a UCAS report from 2021, there's been a massive 450% increase in students disclosing a mental health condition in the last decade.
- The university’s disabilities office or counselling service will also be able to connect you with any mentors, support groups, or student-run welfare teams, where you can meet others with similar concerns.
- If you’d prefer to access support outside of university, there will be charities and organisations you can turn to, either near your campus or online. In the UK for example, you can get advice from Student Minds, who also run student support groups in universities; or contact the University Mental Health Advisers Network (UMHAN). See ‘Good stuff from elsewhere’ below.
- For out-of-hours help, most universities will have a confidential service that you can contact in the night, like the Nightline service in the UK. Alternatively, Young Minds (in the UK) or Crisis Text Line (in the USA) can also be reached with a text message, 24/7. For Young Minds, Text YM to 85258. For Crisis Text Line, text HOME to 741741.
- Living in a completely new environment might be particularly stressful for students on the autistic spectrum. Because of this, some universities now offer summer school programmes for students with autism. These can give you a taste of university life and help you to become familiar with the campus. Contact the university directly to find out if they offer this.
- The Emergency Chat app (available on Google Play and the App Store) can be useful if you’re concerned about living with unfamiliar people who might not understand your needs. It can be used in any situation where speech is impossible but communication is still necessary; for example, to alert those around you that you’re feeling anxious or in need of help. In addition, many campuses have 'safe' spaces where you can go if you need respite.
- The National Autistic Society provides a free transition support service for young people in the UK moving into higher education. Take a look at their website for more details.
Other useful guides
- Our guide Navigating the UK uni application process: A guide for disabled students will help you make the best decision for you, and includes points to consider when applying, if you're planning to study in the UK.
- The Wellbeing and Mental health section of the Know-how library has guides on coping with autism, depression, anxiety and other conditions. These guides look at common symptoms and how to get help.
- In our Dyslexia at a UK university: a case study and Dyspraxia at a UK university: a case study guides, two students share their experiences of disclosing a learning difficulty to university.
Good stuff from elsewhere
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