Seven tips to support autistic students through exam season 

Seven tried-and-tested approaches to help autistic learners achieve their potential and have the best possible experience of exam season

Seven tried-and-tested approaches to help autistic learners achieve their potential and have the best possible experience of exam season

26 Mar 2024, 5:00

As we approach the summer exam season, schools up and down the country are working hard to prepare their students for assessments. In recent years, attention has thankfully focused on helping young people to get ready emotionally, as well as academically, with schools increasingly placing just as much importance on resilience as revision.  

While many students find exams difficult and stressful, this can be exacerbated for autistic young people, who may experience exams differently.

In the lead-up to exams, for example, autistic students may feel anxious because of the greater challenge they experience when facing a new experience. Conversely, they might lack motivation because they don’t ‘see the point’ of an exam when they know they have the knowledge.

When it comes to the exams themselves, a literal understanding might affect how they answer a question or understand what is being asked of them, sensory challenges could make the exam hall distracting or overwhelming.  

And more generally, they might have difficulty concentrating and staying focused on revision and during assessments. In part, this might be because the thought of what comes after, such as moving to new placements, and leaving their current setting may deeply worry them.

An increased awareness of these challenges and strategies to overcome them are important on two fronts: ensuring autistic young people achieve their full potential, and that they have the best possible experience of this potentially stressful period.  

Here are some of the tried and tested approaches we use at our specialist autistic setting.

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Practising scenarios alongside narratives and scripts has been shown to help autistic young people in a range of situations. We have used these to explain the purpose of assessments as well as to demystify the exam experience.

Revision clubs

Many of our students find it easier to revise in staff-run sessions with someone they know and trust to help them maintain focus. We also know autistic young people can feel particularly drained by intense periods of revision, so plan in breaks. 

Interpreting past papers

Most students practise with past papers. Autistic students will find it particularly helpful if you can explain what information and knowledge different question phrases are asking them to give. They will also benefit from help in prioritising which questions to give more or less time to.

Managing anxiety and sensory overload

As exams draw nearer, discuss with all those interacting with and caring for your SEND student whether further support is needed to maintain their overall wellbeing. Their existing supports may need dialling up during this period, for example additional therapies or sessions in quiet or sensory rooms, or access to other aides to help with self-regulation.  

Planning access arrangements

Your school will no doubt have already submitted a request for any access arrangements and reasonable adjustments for your autistic students. It is important that these are explained to the student and discussed with their parents or carers, so everyone is clear about what to expect and the level of support you have been able to secure. You should also rehearse these with the adult responsible for delivering them on exam day. 

Preparing for exam day

What will happen on exam day represents a lot of new information in itself. This might be overwhelming for your autistic students. We have found visual instructions to be helpful, such as a cartoon sketch setting out all the actions on exam day and a check list of what to bring.

Waiting around for the exam to start can be particularly difficult for autistic students. Supervised support with a pre-planned calming and distracting activity to do can help, especially when there are two exams in one day.

Support after the exam

Remember to tell students that the exams are over, and they won’t have the results until the summer. Sharing this on a calendar if needed so that students know the time they must wait.  

Many autistic students have the academic ability to perform well in exams and go on to highly ambitious futures. With the right support, they can demonstrate what they’re truly capable of. And what’s more, they can even enjoy the process.    

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