How To Support Children With Autism With Exams

hands typing on laptop with post title in front

How To Support Children With Autism With Exams

Hi folks!

Wow. I’ve been completely blown away by the feedback to my post http://aspiemiss.co.uk/why-aspies-need-space-after-work-and-school/ and received lots of requests for insight into other areas those with autism have difficulties with.

One area that I received many requests about was how to help those with autism during exams. As a teacher, I see many pupils struggle in a variety of ways, and, whilst these suggestions may not help all pupils (we all know how varied those on the spectrum are!), I hope you’ll find some useful strategies to help with your son or daughter.


Unfortunately, for those of us living in the UK, our pupils are some of the most tested in the world.

Exams are challenging for all pupils, but for those with ASD they present another layer of problems that other children might not find so difficult. A change of routine, a new, unfamiliar environment and being surrounded by a lot more pupils than usual, are all extra problems for those on the autistic spectrum.

But lets start with an area many parents want advice on.

1. Revision

Before your child even gets to the exam room, they will probably have spent weeks, if not months, preparing for it. They will have been reminded in many lessons about the up-coming SAT’s, GCSE’s or A-levels. They will have been encouraged to revise but does your child know exactly how to revise?

Many children assume that revision is reading over notes.

Whilst this is one strategy to use, it should not be the only way they revise. People on the autistic spectrum often find it easier to understand information when it’s presented in different ways, such as visually using pictures or recorded for them to listen to.

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 a large volume of text? Does it have any pictures? Is it colourful? Is the writing broken up into clear sections?

Children with autism may find it easier to revise if the information is clearly laid out in sections with pictures and colours to break the words up. Pictures give them a way to help recall information and using certain colours can aid the memory. They can do this themselves with some plain paper and coloured pens. Creating the notes is good revision and then it’s presented in a much clearer way for when they come to revise.

I can testify as to how effective this was for me. I struggled to revise from 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 work was presented clearly.

Another way to revise is to make it a game. Even teenage pupils would rather play a game than read notes and who can blame them? Luckily todays teenagers with autism have access to a wide range of technology that can support them. From mobile apps to specialised revision websites, there are many different ways to learn information.  It’s about finding what is appropriate to your child. Many secondary schools will tell parents about apps they use in class to encourage their use at home.

I could say so much more about revision, and will in the future, but for now lets move onto thinking about other difficulties children with autism may face at exam time.

2. Anxiety

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!

Firstly lets think where the exam will take place.  For a formal exam, such as a 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 sit their exam and pupils are usually in alphabetical order.

I can’t imagine a more challenging place to so such an important exam.

Not only are you surrounded by far more pupils than normal, but you are then sat at a single desk which creaks and rattles when you lean on it through lack of use. 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 squeaking 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 child 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 GCSE mock exams are taken and then baking in the summer heat when taking the actual exams.

Heat can then lead to other issues, as 100+ pupils in one room for 2 hours in the summer heat will start to sweat. If you are particularly sensitive to smells, it may become almost impossible to concentrate.

So what’s the answer?

3. Exam concessions

Here in the UK, it is possible to apply for pupils to be considered for ‘exam concessions’ if they have a special educational need. Some pupils with low reading ages 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 in that room, as there may be several pupils who need a smaller space.  But a room with 10 pupils is far more preferable than a large room with 100+ pupils. 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 are best speaking to the SENCO at the school as they arrange the concessions.

4. Exam Day

To make sure that your child is ready for their exams, it is best to have a calendar at home showing when the exams are and perhaps a daily countdown.  If your child has been revising then this shouldn’t cause any extra stress as they will know they are prepared.

On the day itself, it’s important to stay as close to the routine as possible. The main aim should be to cause as least stress as possible. Make sure that they arrive to school on-time and with everything they need.

You may think that, if you have a teenager, they should be able to manage their own belongings. That they are old enough to look after themselves and you don’t need to check.

On one hand, I agree.  As children with autism grow older, it’s important that they gradually take on more responsibility to look after themselves. If they don’t they may never learn. They are unlikely to ‘pick up’ these things without being clearly taught them. They will need parents to help them with new responsibilities at first.

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 they definitely have everything they need. It could also prevent a full-on melt-down if they’ve forgotten something. Remember if it’s an external exam, like a GCSE, and your child has a melt-down minutes before, then they won’t be given another time to complete it or a delay. They will likely be ushered into the exam room and given their paper. It is very unlikely that they’ll give it their best effort if they are still recovering from the after-effects of a melt-down.

5. Reassurance

Whilst this is last on my list, I still think it is extremely important. Many children and teenagers with autism and aspergers syndrome have very low self-esteem  and confidence and who can blame them? They spend their lives misunderstanding and misinterpreting language and constantly comparing themselves to those without autism. They often wonder why they seem to have a much easier time of it.

One thing they need from their loved ones is reassurance. They want to know that, whilst you want them to do well, you will be happy with their best effort.

I was lucky in this respect.  From 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 is will get top grades. I want them to know that their best is good enough for me, whatever that may be.

I’d loved to hear if you’ve found this article helpful. Is there anything you’d add to how to help your child during exams?

Speak soon



1 Comment

  1. Pingback: How To Support Children With Autism With Exams

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: