Preparing autistic children and young people for exams

Sarah Wild, Headteacher at Limpsfield Grange School, offers some advice on supporting autistic children and young people with GCSE examimations, from preparing and revision to exam practice and wellbeing.

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Author: Sarah Wild

Helping to prepare autistic children and young people for GCSE examinations
Taking an exam can be a daunting prospect for many people, and for autistic children and young people the thought of taking an exam can provoke such high and unrelenting levels of anxiety that it prevents them from functioning. So as practitioners what can we do to support the autistic children that we teach?
Preparation is key in enabling autistic students to manage exams, and this preparation cannot begin too soon. Identify the key language and ideas from the exam and ensure they are used from the start of KS3 so they are natural to the students. Make it really clear to students that this is the language that will be used in the exam and also the language that they will be expected to use.  
Clearly pre-teaching key subject specific vocabulary is vital in enabling autistic students to develop the skills they need to decode an exam paper. Using visuals will help autistic students grow their subject specific language and can include:
  • photographs
  • films clips
  • vocabulary keyrings
  • flash cards. 
Regularly sharing exam style questions and exam papers with students is a really effective way of ensuring that students are comfortable with the style of questioning used in exams.
Exam practice
If possible provide autistic students with lots of opportunities to practice being in an examination situation. This means over time the actual physical process of being in exam conditions will become demystified.  Ensure that autistic students have experienced regular timed exam questions in silence in class time. Is it possible for students to take a GCSE in Year 10? This would give students the opportunity to practice being in a real GCSE exam situation before Year 11, and give the school a very good insight into how individual students manage the exam experience. 
Revision can be a difficult area for autistic students, who may find it very challenging to go back to work that they have already completed because in their mind it is finished and in the past. Expectations around revision need to be clear. 
Revision activities need to be chunked, specific and time bonded. Executive functioning difficulties may impact on a student’s ability to plan revision effectively. The thought of revising may make some autistic students very anxious, and may overwhelm them. Small chunks of highly specific revision on a regular basis may be the best way to revise. 
Talk to the autistic students about which way they wish to record their revision – maybe visually through thought webs or flow charts or maybe through recording themselves talking or making a film about a specific topic. Some students may need support starting their revision due to their fear of the blank page; talk to them about what would help them begin a revision activity.
Mock exams 
Make sure that the mocks exams are as similar as possible to the real GCSE experience, so that the summer exams are not a surprise. Provide opportunities for the students to feedback about their mock exams so that adaptations can be made for the summer. If autistic students qualify for using readers, scribes, prompts or extra time in their exams, they will need lots of practice using them. Try to match students with staff they feel comfortable with and who are known to them, and to ensure that readers, scribes and prompts are consistent across the exam series. 
Careful consideration needs to be given to the physical environment that the examination takes place in. Practice being in the exam room in silence and ask the autistic student for some feedback about smells, noises, lighting, seating etc. It is important that the examination room does not lead to any sensory overload or sensory discomfort. Examination rules need to be displayed visually, as do pictures of readers, scribes or prompts.
Most importantly consider the physical, emotional and mental wellbeing of your students through the exam season. For some autistic students this will be a time of heightened and unrelenting anxiety with knock on effects on sleeping; diet; exercise and ability to concentrate. 
Simple breathing or visualisation techniques are useful for helping an autistic student stay calm in an exam. Work with each autistic student to identify triggers for anxiety and identify strategies for dealing with anxiety both inside and outside of the exam room. Help them understand that although exams are important nothing catastrophic will happen if they don’t go very well, and life will carry on as normal when they are finished. 
Date added: 21 March 2018