Here we explore some of the particular challenges autistic pupils and students might face during exams, and what may help. We look at:

Helping autistic pupils and students with exam choices

Autistic students and young people should be supported to make appropriate exam choices. In doing so parents and teaching staff should:

  • consider the young person’s ability to cope with the additional pressure and decide on the number of exams to be taken accordingly
  • encourage pupils and students to focus on the exams where they are most interested in the subject
  • consider any comorbid diagnoses that could be giving a false representation of their abilities, eg hyperlexia.

Difficulties with exams and revision for autistic young people

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

  • feel anxious
  • lack the motivation to sit an exam
  • have a literal understanding that effects how they answer a question
  • have sensory issues 
  • have difficulty staying focused.

Anxiety

Autistic people can rely on structure and routine to cope in an unpredictable world. Exams may increase anxiety because they are a new and unpredictable experience that mean a change in routine. It helps to explain to pupils and students:
  • when exams will take place
  • how to prepare for them  
  • exam day procedures.

You may find using visual supports can help with this. 

Some autistic young people can put themselves under pressure by being unrealistic about their performance and worrying about results.

Motivation

Sometimes autistic pupils and students can’t understand why they need to sit an exam. They know that they have the knowledge and to take an exam seems pointless. 

Try to explain how exams can help, for example, having qualifications can show employers that they have knowledge of, and are good at certain subjects.

Understanding exam questions

Autistic people can take things literally, and may not understand open-ended questions.  Exam boards have a duty to make sure that exam questions are accessible to all, whilst making sure it tests the candidate’s knowledge.  

If you are setting assessments within a school or college, look at how questions are phrased. Will they be understood by autistic pupils and students? Before they sit public or external national exams, it will help to look at old exam questions and talk about how to interpret the questions. 

Schools have a role to play in training and preparing students for exams, particularly those with autism who may struggle to understand the wording of questions or take them literally.

Additional support could be put in place by schools to help them acquire the necessary skills.

Sensory issues

Autistic pupils and students can feel overwhelmed by the size and unfamiliarity of exam halls. Things such as strip lighting, noise, smells, an invigilator walking around the hall can all be distracting.  

Special arrangements such as a small room away from distractions can be useful. 

Read more about sensory differences

Staying focused

It can be difficult for autistic pupils and student to understand how long they have to spend on each question, in order to finish an exam in time. Extra time may be needed for them to process instructions and understand exam questions. 

Special arrangements can allow teachers to stay with students and be their prompt.

Motor skills difficulties

Many autistic young people have difficulty with fine motor skills. This could mean that it takes them longer to write and their handwriting is difficult to read. 

Some students may be able to use a computer or possibly have a scribe as part of their special arrangements. 

Intense interests

Intense interests are important to many autistic people, sometimes to the extent where they become obsessions. 

In an exam, some pupils or students could try to bring their intense interest into their answers, whether it is relevant or not.  They should be discouraged from doing this, unless their interest has a direct relevance and can help demonstrate their answer.

Exam preparation for autistic pupils and students

Learning styles

Autistic pupils and students will have different learning styles, it’s important that they think about what works best for them when planning revision.  Encourage them to think about makes them feel most comfortable and able to absorb information.  This could include:
  • their ideal time of day to study
  • what environment they function 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.

Revision and study leave

Autistic young people may find revision time or study leave difficult as it is unstructured. They may not know how to plan their time, or have an untraditional learning style.

Creating a revision timetable can be provide structure and help them 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. 

Support strategies for teachers and parents of autistic pupils and students

Teachers

Once pupils and students have decided their courses, teachers could:

  • write a weekly study plan to give to students at the start of the course
  • create a timetable showing when exams are taking place – keep it on display
  • talk about how you’ll be preparing for exams at school, for example revision lessons
  • use practice or past papers to work with pupils and students on their exam technique
  • help their understanding of open-ended questions and figurative language
  • explain what happens during exams, you could write a short social story
  • try to see students at the start of each exam, as seeing a familiar face may help.

Parents

Here are some ways in which parents can help their child with exam preparation:
  • 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 has an exam timetable somewhere visible
  • consider writing your child a social story about exams. 

Social stories that could help an autistic pupil or student

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

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. 

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 can also be called access or assessment arrangements.

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

The special arrangements you 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 autism. They must be requested in advance from exam boards or awarding bodies and there are often deadlines involved. 

Schools can apply for special arrangements to be made with evidence of a pupil or student’s needs and if an application is refused, they can appeal against it.  

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

Further help from our charity

The National Autistic Society’s Education Rights Service can provide information, support and advice on educational provision and entitlements for children and young people on the autism spectrum.  

Our online community.  

Useful resources

BBC Bitesize learning resources for young people, teachers and parents. 

Brain in hand autism support app. 

MyStudyLife free study app. 

Exam time GCSE revision timetables. 

Getting revising revision tools.

The Student Room online student community.  

Last reviewed: 25 July 2016.