How to support our autistic children at exam time

This time of year can be very stressful for parents of Autistic children. The increased anxiety of exams combines with the pressure to perform to create a melting pot of emotions in most ASD families.

In the article "Why might exams and revision be difficult for my child?" The UK National Autistic Society offers the following advice:

Many autistic pupils and students are academically able, but have difficulties with exams because they:

  • feel anxious, exams can be a new and unpredictable experience
  • lack the motivation to sit an exam. Your child might not understand why they need to sit an exam. They know that they have the knowledge and to take an exam seems pointless 
  • have a literal understanding that affects how they answer a question
  • have sensory differences. The size and unfamiliarity of exam halls, plus things such as strip lighting, noise, smells, an invigilator walking around the hall can all be distracting or even overwhelming  
  • have difficulty staying focused.

What can I do to help?

1. Motivation
Try to explain how exams can help, for example, having qualifications can show employers that your child has knowledge of, and is good at certain subjects.

2. Revision
Encourage your child to think about what works for them, makes them feel most comfortable and able to absorb information.  This could include:

  • their ideal time of day to study
  • what environment they work best in
  • whether to study alone or with a friend
  • which strategies can help (eg visual supports, memory aids).

There are many ways for young people to study for exams, including revision clubs, school libraries, practice exam papers, revision guides and software for computers and tablets. Some students find that mind maps or flashcards help with their revision or they may prefer to use study apps.

Creating a revision timetable can be provide structure and help your child to prioritise which subjects to revise and when. It’s important to include time for exercise, meals and drinks in a revision timetable, these can help them to remain positive and relieve anxiety or stress.

Preparing for exams

  • Talk to your child about when exams will take place and how to prepare for them.
  • Try to teach your child simple relaxation techniques.
  • Ask teaching staff to remind your child to use these techniques before exams.
  • Encourage your child to leave items relating to their intense interests at home.
  • Suggest to your child that they do whatever helps them relax before leaving for an exam, this could be listening to if music or other forms of sensory input.
  • Encourage your child to take part in physical activity as this can reduce anxiety.
  • If you can, make sure your child eats well before an exam.
  • Make yourself available to offer support during exam times.
  • Display your child’s exam timetable somewhere visible.
  • Consider writing your child a social story about exams. 

Social stories that could help your child
Here are example social stories that you could use to explain what exams are and what they need to do during an exam.

1. All about exams 
Sometimes teachers give tests or exams to see what pupils have learnt in lessons. You can be given a test or an exam in any subject you study at school. When a teacher tells the class they have a test or an exam they often tell pupils what information will be covered. It is helpful to listen to what the teacher says and do some revision. Sometimes pupils feel nervous before or during an exam. It is OK to feel nervous. 

2. During an exam 
Sometimes teachers give tests or exams for pupils to complete. During exams, it’s important to try and think about the questions and how to answer them. That way pupils can do their best in exams. Later, when the exam is finished, pupils and students may want to think about their intense interests. It is OK to think about these after the exam. I will try to think about exam questions and answers only during the exam. 

Special arrangements for autistic young people during exams

Schools can make their own arrangements for autistic pupils and students during internal exams. For public or external national exams, they must apply for special arrangements to be put in place. These are generally called concessions.

Schools have to demonstrate thatconcessions are needed. For example, pupils and students may first have been tested by a specialist teacher or an educational psychologist to determine which concessions are appropriate.

The concessions they can ask for include:

  • extra time
  • a separate room either in a small group or alone
  • a reader
  • a scribe
  • a prompter to keep students focused
  • an oral language modifier (except Scotland)
  • a computer instead of handwriting
  • assistive software (screen reader/voice recognition)
  • exam papers in different formats, such as digital
  • supervised rest breaks.

These arrangements may be offered to students with special educational needs or additional support needs, including students who are autistic. They must be requested in advance from exam boards or awarding bodies and there are often deadlines involved. 

If you're a parent with concerns about your child as their exams approach, talk to school staff about applying concessions.


A more personal approach

Reach Out Autism Consultants offer the following advice:

1. Tell the truth

It is often the subtle and not so subtle pressures from what teachers and parents say that causes so much stress. We do tell young people that these exams are the most important thing in their life.

Parents pick up on this false importance and put pressure on their child. There’s pressure from assemblies, media and young people passing these messages between them. Teachers have been put under so much pressure. Exam results are what gives the school its status and many are in fear of their jobs if students don’t achieve expected grades. That pressure is naturally put onto young people and they are the ones who are supposed to ‘perform’ under that pressure.

Here are some truths:

  • You will not die if you don’t do the exams.
  • You will not be a failure in life if the results are not what you or your teachers were aiming for.
  • You may do even better than you thought you might.
  • There are different ways to get a job in the area you are interested in. There are more kinds of jobs than you can ever imagine. Including being self-employed.
  • Some people take longer to get where they are going. Life is NOT a race.
  • Exam results are NOT a measure of your worth as a person.

Take off pressure, tell the truth. Yes, tests and exams have a place in our education system but they ARE NOT THE END OF THE WORLD. They are helpful to get onto the next step, but there are many routes into the world of work and life so we have to stop putting the pressure on.


2. Find out what they are thinking and really listen

I am a big fan of mapping things out. I find that autistic young people (and many others) have so much going on in their brain and so many bits of ‘advice’ given to them verbally, that recalling any of it, especially when it is needed can be impossible. Others recall all of it but are too overwhelmed to use what they need and become very anxious to do EVERYTHING everyone said. Too much reliance on verbal language means the energy they need to process that is often much greater than it is for non-autistic students.

I sit with students and ask them to tell me what they are thinking, feeling, worried, confident, confused about. I write all this down on a large piece of paper. Often things come out that no-one realised they were bothered about such as “one teacher in year 10 said I wouldn’t get to university if I didn’t get an A in French” (this really happened).

The mapping out of what they say does certain things:

  • Prove that you are listening to them.
  • Gives you insights and information you may not have realised.
  • Enables you both to work together to highlight what is the biggest worry and what possible solutions there could be.

For some students just getting it out and being listened to is enough. For others, simple solutions present themselves from what you see on your map. For others, they may need extra support, changes and help to get them where they need to be. Often, we use the same piece of paper (leave space for this) to add some perspective. So, if you know they think they are going to fail, then you can remind them that they have attended all their lessons, done okay in previous exams, or whatever facts you can give to help them get that particular worry into perspective.

3. Aim to explain and manage the anxiety

A few nerves can help us be more alert and focussed, but the amount of anxiety many young people feel is way over this point. Young people are in a state of high alert, their systems so full of anxiety that they are fighting the urge to ‘fight, flight or freeze’ and some do have many meltdowns or shutdowns at this time. So, we really should be concerned with reducing anxiety so the young person can be calm enough to think clearly and do their best.

Many autistic students we support are very anxious at this time of year, not only because they are going to have to try and remember information for an exam, but they don’t know which information they need to remember, can’t predict or prepare for what the actual questions will be and so many other things are going to change around the exams (and probably already have).

The rigid thinking and beliefs that nothing but a perfect score will do, and therefore they cannot do the exams because they might not get that perfect score, is very disabling when a student goes through this. It takes kindness and coaching to support them through it – and please don’t nag them or keep repeating ‘it doesn’t matter’ because their feelings are huge and they do matter to them. Taking the situation one aspect at a time, looking at the facts and breaking the revision and tasks into smaller chunks might help. Some children are very distressed by perfectionism and they need less pressure because they can use the pressure you give them (you will call it encouragement) to blame you for their distress. Backing off, giving them options (even not to do the exams at all) often allows them thinking time and opportunity to try to do the exams. Perfectionists are usually very bright and will do well if they can get to do the exams and will need support to have time off revision and to get out into the fresh air or switch off from studying.

Sensory Needs:
There will be sensory differences, a completely different timetable, familiar routines will change. Prepare the young person for this, and make sure familiar things are highlighted. This is a good time to write lists, use a calendar, or even return to using a visual timetable. Show what is familiar and add times of relaxation, sensory comforts and rest. Talk to your young person, tell them the most important things are that they can get through this, it is temporary and that eating, drinking and resting are the priorities (even over revision if that is a huge stressor as it is in many of our pupils). Make those sensory adjustments (a quiet room, sitting at the back or whatever will help them and make sure the invigilators know about those adjustments).

Take away the pressure:
I often tell parents to take ALL pressure away and even act like they don’t mind how the young person does in the exams. For many autistic young people, the pressure is from within themselves, and their teachers, so a home which reduces the pressure is so helpful for them. Be careful to acknowledge your own worries and anxiety. Much of what you worry about is catastrophising too, banish the negative what ifs from your own mind. Start to look for opportunities rather than only seeing the barriers.

Exam concessions:
Many autistic students are eligible for exam concessions and this will need to be discussed as early as possible. The school will probably want to do some assessments and there are a lot of adaptations that can be made such as sitting in a quiet room, having more time, having sensory or movement breaks and even listening to music (as long as the playlist is pre-approved).

4. Keep routine, reduce demands

Prepare for the changes of environment, routine and what to talk about after the exam. One of my students was very anxious about having two exams in one day, but the biggest stress was whether he’d have enough time to have his lunch in between. The hall for exams was at the other end of the school from the dining area, so we found another quiet area, nearer to the hall which would have given him time and space to eat without being worried by more than he needed to worry about.

The biggest thing to help is reminded you young person what has finished. If necessary, write the exams on post it notes and take them OFF the calendar when they are finished. Or just put a big green tick through the date. It is done, finished.

Keep your routines
Keep as much of the regular routine that the young person wants. Familiarity will help them feel safe. Also plan some routines for the days they are not in school, don’t make them all revision days, but allow Playstation time and a routine for bedtime if possible (good luck with that!) Plan in meal routines.

What comes next?
Think of projects they might be interested in for the summer break. This will depend on your young person and their capacity to engage after the exams. Give them time to rest too. One family sat with their autistic young person and put a list of things they’d like to do and put them on post-it notes as a choice board. The young person could choose one a week, then put it back on the board in case they wanted to do it again. 

If they do not want to go over it in any detail, or at all, then let it go. If they do, listen and then remind them it is finished. Help them to move on to thinking about the next thing. Make sure they have assured ‘down time’ or activity time after the exam, what they have chosen to do. Some might like to bounce on the trampoline, others need to hide under the duvet. Let them recover in their own way and if there is no need for them to stay at school, let them go home straight after the exam.

5. For those mainstream autistic students who are unlikely to do well in exams

Keep it in perspective for them. Give regular and undemanding times of support. If they have not revised all year it is unlikely they are going to start now. If they can be persuaded to do a bit, find the thing that will engage them the most, such as an App or computer based activity.

For some it is about the clear distinction between school and home, full stop, or just that school takes up all their spoons (see spoon theory here) and they just CAN’T. Putting more pressure on at this time of the year is likely to have the opposite effect you have desired. Bribery rarely works (although some negotiation for a treat afterwards works for some, I’m not a fan of it, it is often just more pressure to perform, I’d rather give the treat just for being them!) They may do much better than you think and be able to move on to the next steps. We have done a lot of work by now with our Y11 autistic students who are not good at exams. 

It’s not the end of the world
Go over the truths at the beginning of this post and remind your student that this is NOT the end of the world. There are too many autistic young people giving up on education and feeling hopeless about life at this stage because all our systems tell them they are failures. I can’t bear it.

Let them rest and recover over the summer. Let them do what they like and emotionally recover from the trauma that school may have caused them. I cannot tell you how to get a 16 year old autistic young person out of their bedroom and into gainful employment, you have to let them recover and work from what they DO like, what they are good at. Even if all they do is play games online. Go into their world and start from there. Have some non-negotiables, like being safe, eating meals or whatever you can manage. You may be able to get help, you may have to find help and advice yourself, but no autistic young person is a failure and there can be a place for them in this society.

Get help
I wish I could do more about this because it is such a hard time for parents, but my best advice is to get online and start to talk to the autistic community. Find autistic adults who have worked in advocacy and advice or training and ask what they suggest. They have probably been through something similar and they are the best people to help and advice you for your young person.
And from now until the results come out – remember to allow you and your child to BREATHE!




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