Supporting Autistic children through exams….the highs and challenges

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Exams are a tricky time for students

Exam season is well and truly over for this academic year. For me it was double the fun! My son was sitting his A levels and my daughter was sitting her GCSEs. But firstly, let me tell you a bit about me, I work at Studley High school, which is the school that my daughter has just left. I was part of the SEND department for 18 months and have been an exam invigilator for three and a half years. Exams are a tricky time for students, there is so much pressure and I can empathise with all of those pressures as a parent and as a professional working in education.

Aside from all of this, my daughter is on the autistic spectrum. She was diagnosed in 2011 as having Aspergers, or ‘high functioning autism’ as it is now called. It’s difficult to comprehend sometimes when you are told that your child has an additional need. To me, she was just my daughter and that is what life was like, with her little quirks and amazing memory and her infectious laugh.

The gap with her peers began to get wider during the last two years at primary school and then as she progressed through secondary school. It’s only at those points when you realise that life just has to be tackled a different way. As teenage hormones kick in, the world of a child with autism becomes a challenging place. This happened around year 9, so at about 14 years old. Suddenly she started to become more aware of the world around her, the good, the bad and the ugly. Anxiety levels rose, which was quite a shock to us as we had bobbed along making it up day by day, but overcoming every hurdle. The challenge with having an autistic child is to keep everything on as even a keel as possible, no surprises, don’t change the plans at the last minute. Keeping the routine as normal as possible, not only at home, but at school too. What worked one day, might not work the next. It was important to keep the lines of communication open at school as it’s a partnership between school, home and pupil.

Keep it low key and listen, give reassurance

Anxiety has played a major role in the last couple of years for my daughter, so we have been working on strategies to help her deal with it. As we were all too aware of the looming GCSEs. The anxiety impacted on her learning as she couldn’t sleep for worrying, getting up in the night for reassurance. At times she worried about being apart from me and would need to know where I was all of the time. What we have learnt is to keep it very low key and listen, give reassurance and when important exam dates arrived we kept life very simple and not race around or commit to many outside activities which would add to her stress.

The mock exams before and after Christmas were the real test to see how she would cope under exam conditions, she was in a room on her own, with an invigilator and had rest breaks. This was largely so that she didn’t disturb other pupils as she often talks to herself or rubs her hands together, this is called ‘stimming’. It is a sensory aspect of autism, she does this when she is happy or when she is stressed along with jumping up and down. You couldn’t have that in an exam room!

Now we come to the real thing…GCSEs. It’s tricky for my daughter to remember everyday mundane tasks, so to keep on top of an exam timetable is another challenge as well as the constant reminder to revise. She does not like revising as it is going over stuff she has already done. But nevertheless, we constantly nagged! We’d set the kitchen timer to half hour slots so she could revise and have regular breaks. She had a revision timetable stuck on her wall, structure is really important to her, even if she deviates from the plan, she had a plan to start with. While a lot of our attention is on our daughter and supporting her through the GCSE process, we were also supporting our son through his exams too! High levels of teenage tension swept through the house at times.

Because I invigilate, I understand the process for sitting an exam, this has been helpful to me as a parent in preparing my children for exams and especially my daughter. I can answer most of her questions so that she is aware of the process. On the professional side, I invigilate the exams for pupils with ‘extra access arrangements’. This is the separate exam room when pupils who have been given extra time, have rest breaks or suffer from the anxiety of being in the gym with over 100 other pupils. Pupils have extra time for various reasons – slow processing skills, dyslexia, some pupils with autism have extra time. I can use my experience of being a parent whose child has anxiety and additional needs to be calm and support the pupils in the exam room. My daughter did have extra time for her exams, which was a real benefit, but also a double edged sword as it added 25% onto the length of the exam. Meaning there was not a lot of down time or as my daughter would say “time to decompress” between exams. There were plans in place where she could go for some quiet time or to have a jump around and expand her energy. It was good that the school didn’t have exam leave as this would have been a challenge to manage for her with both me and her dad at work. She has no concept of time, always interesting when sitting an exam. But it seemed to go ok, she had the same invigilator for every exam. Again, that was a crucial part to reducing anxiety and she was able to build up a relationship with the invigilator and it worked really well.

All we can do now, is wait, take life a day at a time and see what results day brings..

My daughter is the first cohort for the new style GCSEs, in some ways it has been good because she likes sitting exams. She enjoyed the calmness of an exam room on her own, but it has meant that a large amount of work has had to be done for the subjects in the last two years. This creates added pressure as no one knows exactly how the grades are going to be set, the sixth forms give conditional offers based on predicted grades. For my daughter, she is academic, but for her, it’s all on how her anxieties are at that moment or if something has unsettled her – this could be as simple as the canteen running out of margherita pizza!. It is very unpredictable. So all we can do now is wait, take life a day at a time and see what results day brings.

Mrs R Dixon, Mum and exam invigilator

For more information on supporting pupils and children with Aspergers through exams, read here.