Exams can be particularly difficult for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). As a teacher with autism, I completely understand. Different timetables, different rooms…and that’s before you even think about worrying about doing well. So, how can parents help?
Many children with ASD struggle if they are not in their routine.
It’s therefore really important to make sure that children know when their exams are and what to expect. Luckily for parents, the exam dates are usually available on the school calendar at the start of the school year. This means you have time to think about how best to support your child. For some children, a quick chat with a teacher the week before is all they need.
However, other children will need several weeks of preparation with visual timetables and social stories to help them understand what will happen and when. They may need to see the exam hall and sit at a desk and chair so that any sensory difficulties can be spotted early.
Does your child know how to revise/study?
We take it for granted, but it is one of those skills that will need to be explained specifically to children with autism. Unlike other children, they usually struggle to generalize skills, and so although they may have practiced ways to learn things in class, there is no guarantee they will make the link that the same skills can be used to revise.
So what is revision? Reading over notes until you remember them?
While this may be one way, it should not be the only way used to revise. Children with autism often find it easier to understand information when it’s presented in different ways, such as pictures alongside text and listening to recordings.
So, how can this help your child?
Look at the information your child may have been given to learn. How it is presented? It is in lines and lines of text? Does it have any pictures? Is it colorful? Is the writing broken up into clear sections?
Your child may find it easier to revise if the information is clearly laid out in sections, with pictures and colors to break the words up. Pictures give children a way to help recall information, and using certain colors can aid the memory. They can do this themselves with some plain paper and colored pens. Creating the notes is good revision, and then it’s presented in a much clearer way for when they come to revise.
As a child, these methods definitely helped me. I struggled to revise long pieces of writing, even though I loved to read! One thing I didn’t struggle to remember was anything that was put on the wall in classrooms. I can still recall a range of classroom posters that were on the walls in school, mainly because they had pictures on them and the points were laid out clearly.
Another way to revise is to make it a game. Even teenagers would rather play a game than read notes, and who can blame them? Luckily, today’s teens with autism have access to a wide range of technology that can help them. From mobile apps to specialized revision websites, there are many different ways to learn information. It’s about finding what is appropriate for your child. Ask the school if it uses any apps in classes, and encourage your child to use the same technology at home, too.
This is a big one.
Most pupils get anxious about exams, but if you have autism, then things are even more difficult.
Most children will be concerned about what the questions will be, but pupils with autism can worry about a whole lot more!
First, let’s think about where the exam will take place. For a formal exam, such as a General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE), pupils will usually be taken out of their normal classrooms and placed in a large room with rows of desks. There will usually be an entire year group placed in this room to take the exam, and pupils are usually in alphabetical order.
I can’t imagine a more challenging place to do such an important test.
Not only are you surrounded by far more pupils than normal, but you are also sitting at a single desk that creaks and rattles! If you are unlucky enough to be sat in the middle of a row, then there may be people surrounding you on all sides.
Every desk is creaking and groaning through lack of use, there are chairs squeaking and dragging on the floor, and it feels like you can hear every cough and sneeze taking place around you. And don’t even get me started on the squeaky doors that the staff come in and out of. No matter how quietly they try to sneak in, believe me, they’ve probably already distracted the children with autism—if not others!
Some rooms are well lit, some are not. Some rooms are warm, others aren’t. Some rooms are freezing in the winter when mock exams are taken and then baking in the summer heat when the actual exams roll around.
Heat can then lead to other issues, as 100+ pupils in one room for two hours in the summer will start to sweat. If you are particularly sensitive to smells, it may become almost impossible to concentrate.
So, what’s the answer?
4. Exam Concessions
Here in the UK, it is possible to apply for pupils to be considered for ‘exam concessions’ if they have special educational needs. Some pupils with low reading capabilities can be considered for a reader in all subjects except English. Other pupils may need the question paper enlarged due to vision difficulties.
For those with autism, one of the main concessions is a smaller exam room. They still complete the exam at the same time as everyone else, but they are in a smaller, more familiar room. They may not be alone, as there may be several pupils who need a smaller space. But a room with 10 students is far more preferable than a large room with 100+. Often, these alternative rooms are classrooms set up for an exam, which means they may have larger desks that pupils are used to working on. Overall, the environment is much more familiar and, therefore, less stressful at a time when pupils need to stay calm.
If you think that this would help your child, you should speak to the Special Educational Needs Coordinator (SENCO) at your child’s school, as they arrange the concessions.
5. Exam Day
On the day itself, it’s important to stay as close to the routine as possible. The main aim should be to cause the least amount of stress as possible. Make sure your child arrives to school on time and with everything he/she needs.
If you have a teenager, you may think he/she is old enough to manage bringing all needed school supplies without you having to double-check.
On the one hand, I agree. As children with autism grow older, it’s important they gradually take on more responsibility in looking after themselves. If they don’t, they may never learn. They are unlikely to ‘pick up’ these things without being clearly taught them, and they will need parents to help them with new responsibilities at first. Eventually, however, they will become more independent.
But on that exam day, when your child needs to have a pen that works or a compass, then make sure he/she has it. You’ll feel calmer knowing your child definitely has everything that’s needed. It could also prevent a full-on meltdown if something has been forgotten. Remember, if it’s an external exam like the GCSE and your child has a meltdown minutes before because he/she has forgotten a pencil case, then the child will not be given another time to complete it or a delay. Instead, he/she will likely be ushered into the exam room and given the paper. It is very unlikely that your child will put forth his/her best effort if still recovering from the after-effects of a meltdown.
While this is last on my list, I still think it is extremely important. Many children and teenagers with autism have very low self-esteem and confidence.
One thing they need from their loved ones is reassurance. They want to know that, while you want them to do well, you will be happy with their best effort.
I was lucky in this respect. When I was little, my mum always told me, “All I want is for you to do your best. If you can come home and honestly tell me that you did your best, then that’s good enough for me.”
These words stuck with me, and I use them in my own classroom to encourage children to give it a go. I want every child to do well and to aim high, but not every child will get top grades. It is important your child knows if he/she gives his/her very best, then that’s the best that can be done.
Kirsty Maher (BA PGDip. SEN) is an SEN teacher in the UK who also has Asperger’s syndrome and blogs about her experiences.
This article was featured in Issue 65 – Back-To-School Transitions