Fostering inclusivity at ACU

In celebrating the 2023 ACU Autism Inclusion Awards, Autistic students have praised three educators for their ongoing commitment to making their tertiary education experience a success.

Associate Professor Xiaoying Qi from ACU's School of Arts (Melbourne) and Dr Gareth Wearne, Senior Lecturer for the National School of Theology (Strathfield) have been named joint winners of the 2023 ACU Autism Inclusion Awards. Dr Carmel Turner, Lecturer in the School of Education (Brisbane) has also received a Highly Commended award.

Headshot of Associate Professor Xiaoying Qi an Asian woman with black shoulder length hair in a blue top

The judging panel recognised Associate Professor Qi for providing individualised support to a student that demonstrates both commitment to student outcomes and genuine respect for autistic people as individuals with a meaningful contribution to make; and Dr Wearne for providing an environment and culture in which neurodivergent students feel supported in their challenges and celebrated for their successes.

Associate Professor Qi said she was delighted to be a recipient of the Award.

"Inclusion of individuals with autism in mainstream social and educational settings challenges conventional 'disability' and 'the other' approaches of autism and promotes an 'able' and 'us' approach," Associate Professor Qi said.

Dr Wearne said it was important to make the learning environment supportive for all students.

"It's moving to learn that neurodiverse students feel safe and welcome to participate fully in my classes. I fully believe that making our units more inclusive spaces makes them better for all students," he said.

 Dr Gareth Wearn a white man with brown hair and round glasses wearing a beige casual jacket at an historical site

The student who nominated her said Associate Professor Qi made a conscious effort to include him in classes, and to accommodate his autistic sensory challenges.

"I often had to take breaks, either lying down in the room or taking a walk outside to ameliorate overload, and these behaviours were accepted as part of my self-regulatory and additional support needs."

"I felt a sense of belonging in her classes and was treated with understanding and respect just like any other student."

The student who nominated Dr Gareth Wearne commended his ability to acknowledge that many students struggle with aspects of university.

"Gareth acknowledges that some people struggle with some things and respects that, but also lets those students have a go at the thing they struggle with without making a big fuss," the nominating student said.

"In saying that, he also tells students when they have done a good job and how they did a good job."

The Awards, now in its second year, encourages autistic members of the ACU community to nominate a non-autistic ACU staff member who has made the university more inclusive for neurodivergent people.

The Autism Inclusion Awards is an initiative of ACU's Autism Awareness-Acceptance-Appreciation Week, held this year between 27 March to 2 April.

Autistic advocate and Pro-Vice Chancellor (Research Impact) Professor Sandra Jones said universities could be challenging places for autistic people to learn and work.

"Autistic students are underrepresented in university; in Australia, only 8 per cent of autistic adults have a bachelor degree or higher. Autistic people are also underrepresented among university staff, despite many having skills and personal qualities that make them ideally suited to education roles. Those who are employed are often reluctant to disclose due to the risk of stigma and discrimination," Professor Jones said.

"It makes a profound difference in the experience of autistic staff and students when educators and professional staff make a conscious decision to welcome and embrace their autistic colleagues and students.

"I want to congratulate Associate Professor Xiaoying Qi, Dr Gareth Wearne and Dr Carmel Turner for their concerted efforts in making ACU a safe, inclusive and supportive space for our autistic students and staff, like myself.

"Your ability to listen, acknowledge, support and address the needs of autistic people makes you wonderful autism allies and role models for your colleagues."

For more information about ACU's autism initiatives please visit

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