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How to Help a Child With Autism Prepare for Exams

Exams can be particularly difficult for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). As a teacher with autism, I completely understand. Different timetables and different rooms, worrying about doing well and getting good grades…

So, how can parents help help their autistic children prepare for exams? Here are tips that will make this exam season a lot easier.

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1. Focus on preparation

Many children with ASD struggle if they are not in their routine. Because of that, it’s really important to ensure 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.

2. Teach them revision and studying skills

We take it for granted, but revision is one of those skills that will need to be explained specifically to children with autism.

So, what is revision? Reading over notes until you remember them?

While this may be one way, it should not be the only way to revise. Children with autism often find it easier to understand information when presented differently, such as pictures alongside text and listening to recordings.

Your child may find revising easier 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 memory.

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They can do this themselves with some plain paper and colored pens. Creating the notes is a 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.

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.

3. Help them deal with anxiety

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.

Every desk is creaking and groaning through lack of use and there are chairs squeaking and dragging on the floor. Some rooms are well-lit, some are not. Some rooms are warm, others aren’t.

As you can imagine, this can cause a lot of anxiety, especially for students with sensory sensitivities. Because of that, it’s important for parents to remember that there’s more to exam anxiety than just grades.

Prepare your child, talk to them, and practice calming techniques. Establishing some healthy coping strategies can make a world’s difference.

4. Research exam concessions

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 readers 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 simultaneously as everyone else, but they are in a smaller, more familiar room.

A young boy writing an exam alone https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/prepare-exams-new-school-year-autism/

They may not be alone, as there may be several pupils who need a smaller space. But a room with 10 students is far preferable to 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. Help them prepare on the 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 possible. Ensure your child arrives at school on time and with everything they need.

If you have a teenager, you may think they are old enough to manage to bring 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 they have 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. 

6. Give plenty of reassurance

While this is last on my list, I still consider it 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.


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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 they give their very best, then that’s the best that can be done.

This article was featured in Issue 65 – Back-To-School Transitions

FAQs

Q: Do people with autism struggle with tests?

A: People with autism often face challenges with tests due to difficulties with social communication, sensory sensitivities, and anxiety, which can impact their performance. Standardized testing formats may not accommodate their unique cognitive processing and learning styles.

Q: Does autism make it hard to study?

A: Autism can make studying challenging due to difficulties with concentration, sensory sensitivities, and differences in learning styles. However, with appropriate support and accommodations, many individuals with autism can effectively manage their studies.

Q: How do autistic people study best?

A: Autistic individuals often study best in environments tailored to their sensory needs, such as quiet spaces with minimal distractions, and benefit from structured routines and clear, concise instructions. They may also excel with visual aids, hands-on learning, and technology-based tools that cater to their unique learning styles.

Q: Do autistic people memorize easily?

A: Autistic individuals often have strengths in rote memory and can easily memorize specific types of information, such as facts, figures, or sequences. However, their ability to memorize can vary widely and may be influenced by the nature of the information and their individual interests and cognitive profiles.

References:

Wood, R., & Happé, F. (2023). Barriers to tests and exams for autistic pupils: improving access and longer-term outcomes. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 27(5), 603–619. https://doi.org/10.1080/13603116.2020.1866685 

McDougal, A. and Efstratopoulou, M. (2020) Parents’ perceptions of the impact of early stage exam tests on anxiety levels in young children with and without Autism. In: Interdisciplinary reflections and socio-cultural issues in education: Anthropological, legal and educational views for vulnerable groups. Oxford Press, Oxford, pp. 82-98. ISBN 9798649117500 

Zavery, A.; Zäch, M.; Bertrams, A. Test Anxiety in Autistic University Students—Preliminary Results from a German-Speaking Sample. Brain Sci. 2021, 11, 390. https://doi.org/10.3390/brainsci11030390 

Accardo, A. L., Kuder, S. J., & Woodruff, J. (2019). Accommodations and support services preferred by college students with autism spectrum disorder. Autism, 23(3), 574-583. https://doi.org/10.1177/1362361318760490 

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