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Making exams accessible for autistic students

Nora Gardiner, Marketing and Communications Co-ordinator at the Autism Education Trust, discusses their exam guidance which aims to make English and Maths exams more accessible to autistic students, including accommodations when sitting exams and ensuring exam papers are fully accessible.

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Author: Nora Gardiner

Making exams more accessible for autistic students 

Exams are stressful and difficult for most students and autistic students may face additional challenges such as sensory overload and unclear or ambiguous questions and instructions. 

Having recognised these challenges, the Department for Education commissioned the Autism Education Trust (AET) to develop guidance for teachers, examination officers and award bodies on making GCSE English and Mathematic exam papers more accessible to for autistic students. 

Exam papers and accommodations

The project focused on two key elements: 

  • student specific accommodations
  • exam papers. 

The guidance around accommodations helps teachers and exam officers support autistic students to demonstrate fully their knowledge and skills in exams. 

The exam paper guidance, expected to be published late 2018, aims to support exam boards to design exam papers that are inclusive and accessible to autistic students, whilst also retaining the integrity of the questions. 

The research involved 30 practitioners and autistic students.  Literature research was carried out by a core team of teachers with experience in teaching GCSE autistic students, alongside two workshops secondary English and Maths subject specialists and SEND professionals to review specific GCSE Maths and English papers in depth.

Both guides were written specifically to support autistic students being entered for GCSEs, but the principles and good practice examples can be applied to all public examinations.

Understanding needs

Autistic students can have an uneven profile of abilities, which can also coincide with other factors such as age, personality or co-occurring conditions. It is very important to assess each student to gain an overall profile of their strengths and needs. 

Difficulties with social interaction may impact on students in exam situations when responding to instructions from an invigilator, or understanding colloquialisms and hidden and subtle meanings within exam questions. It may also impact on how they answer certain exam questions that require a response that involves inference. Formal exam settings might also cause sensory sensitivities, for example the smell of a person’s perfume, the lights in the room or sounds of a clock.

Access arrangements

Access arrangements for public exams are designed and regulated by the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) and can be downloaded from their website. Access arrangements include reasonable adjustments that are needed to make exams accessible for candidates who have disabilities. This could be extra time or a reader, but the JCQ recognises that this may take many forms:

“A reasonable adjustment may be unique to that individual and may not be included in the list of available access arrangements.”

Some access arrangements such as extra time, a reader or a scribe must be applied for online. Some others, for example supervised rest breaks, don’t need to be applied for but require written evidence confirming the need. Using a word processor, reading aloud or using a prompter should be available to autistic students without an online application and written evidence.

Preparing the student

In order to prepare autistic students for taking exams, teachers should be familiar with the exam content and formatting so that they can provide individualised guidance and support. It is good practice to make use of any available previous papers and practice material. 

Autistic students often experience high levels of anxiety. Some tips to prepare them for the day include:

  • Social Stories to help students cope with tricky situations
  • use schedules, cue cards and comic strips instead of verbal communication at times of stress
  • “oops” sessions when there are changes to the timetable.

An ‘oops’ session is a way of supporting autistic children to understand that there are often things that happen that are not expected - the ‘oops’ is placed on the visual schedule in place of what is expected to happen. For autistic students sitting GCSEs this approach can be modified to an appropriate age/ability level.

It is also important to support students to manage their anxiety when change occurs, and to help them feel relaxed when studying. Providing a staffed homework club and revision club helps students who find it difficult to study at home. Varying the content of practice questions give students the opportunity to apply their knowledge more widely.

Exam papers

Making GCSE exam papers as accessible as possible is also paramount. The exam accommodation guide identified three key areas that might pose challenges to autistic students:

  • specific phrasing of exam questions
  • layout of questions within an exam paper
  • where the subject content that is being tested in the exam is intrinsically difficult for autistic students – for example in English ‘identify and interpret implicit information and ideas’, or in Maths ‘make deductions and inferences and draw conclusions’

One way of improving accessibility is by reviewing older exam papers completed by autistic students, to gain a wider profile of where access could be increased by altering questions without reducing the difficulty level. 

Students would benefit if examining and awarding bodies have sufficient autism expertise when reviewing exam papers. Accessibility can be increased by exam boards being mindful of the selection of terminology, phrasing and use of diagrams and pictures to reduce the incidence of ambiguity within questions. Removing inference from questions where inference is not specifically being tested can also have a positive impact on the performance of autistic students.

A special thanks to our contributing editor and author, Louise Ling, SEND Teaching School Director, LIFT Partnership, SEND Teaching School

To find out more about exam accommodations and the AET autism education training programme please visit the Autism Education Trust website


Further information

MyWorld - free resources for teachers

Exam guidance

Date added: 11 October 2018