Aspergers and Exams

This topic was suggested to me by a friend of mine on Facebook when I was touting for ideas as to what to write. She suggested that I approach this topic due to the time of year when exam results are on a lot of people’s minds in the United Kingdom and a lot of people with Aspergers may now be panicking about transitioning on to the next period of their life.

It must be said, of course, that exam anxiety is by no means specific to those of us with Aspergers-I can think of 2 people in particular I know closely who do not have Aspergers but who are panic stricken when it comes to taking exams. The atmosphere in the exam room appears to induce panic in a lot of people because it’s so formal. Some people get so anxious that they have to sit their exams in a separate room to have any chance of being calm enough to express what they know and achieve their full potential. However, obviously in this post, I will be talking from my experience as someone with Aspergers.

Considering how anxious I am generally, I cope surprisingly well with exams. Of course, I haven’t taken any academic exams since the age of twenty one when I passed my degree (I can’t believe that was 6 years ago). I still take annual competency based tests at work but, luckily, these don’t usually make me anxious. Throughout my school days, I was entitled to extra time in all my exams, 25% extra time at primary school, secondary school and university and 10% at sixth form college when I was taking my A Level exams. I also had a transcript done of all my written papers at GCSE and A Level because my handwriting is appalling. This is a fairly rare exam concession now as it is a lot more common for students to be allowed to type their exam answers on a laptop with the spell check disabled. This has to be the student’s normal way of working however and, although I was supplied with a laptop during my GCSE years, I didn’t like to use it in class as, back then, I didn’t want to do anything which marked me out as visibly different which, looking back at it, makes me laugh as I attended a very small school with only 75 people in my year and I had received one to one support until Year 8 (13 years old) so all of my peers knew that I had some sort of diagnosis and I had indeed told a few of them about Aspergers Syndrome. I felt that, if I used a laptop in class, my class mates would feel that it was unfair that I was allowed to do that and that it would cause issues so I never used it. If I could go back in time to those days with the benefit of hindsight, I would have used it but, back then, my typing speed was pretty slow (I can now type pretty quickly as I use computers a lot in my job) and so I didn’t really see the point in typing. I would urge any school student with Aspergers who is offered a laptop to type class work up on to take that offer as I know from experience that people take your work a lot more seriously when they can actually read it!

When it came to revision, I never had any issues with organising my own revision but I know that a significant number of people with Aspergers have executive functioning issues that make organising their time difficult (I do have executive functioning issues but they don’t affect that particular area). My advice is to make a structured revision timetable, with support if needed, and give yourself little rewards for sticking to it. Allocate slightly more time to your weaker subjects or topics but don’t forget to leave time for breaks and leisure periods as well. A lot of people, whether they have Aspergers or not, try to revise endlessly without breaks because they get stressed and they think that revising for hours at a time will help the information go in. Actually, it does the opposite. Take regular breaks and don’t revise for more than an hour at a time maximum and you will find that a lot more information sticks. Some people with Aspergers find that allocating a period of time to revising a subject in its entirety is overwhelming so they break it down further and write the individual topic they will be revising at that time. It all depends on the individual. I know that a lot of people find flash cards helpful but I never liked them personally. Take what works for you and use it. I have known people record themselves talking about a certain subject and then listen back to it to help the information go in that way. I used to revise by just reading through my subject books and essays on the topics but I know that, for a lot of people, that passive revision technique doesn’t work and that’s fine. I know that the only reason it probably worked for me was that I have a very good memory for the written word and I can visualise what I have read on a topic with ease in the exam room. Indeed, people have often asked me if I have a photographic memory. I don’t because I can’t remember word for word something I have read but I get pretty close!

Take advantage of revision clubs that your school or college may offer you. I know that a lot of 15 and 16 year olds find the idea of extra revision to be nerdy and uncool and may tease people who do attend revision clubs but you are doing it for your future, nobody else’s. I remember, on one occasion, I was the sole person who turned up to an after school French revision class and, when the lack of attendance was mentioned the next day, everybody knew that I had been the only one who turned up but I didn’t care. I guess it helps that, like a lot of people I have met with an Aspergers diagnosis, I am immune to peer pressure and I don’t really care whether I fit in with the cool crowd or not. Ask for past question papers to go over and try not to get too upset if your marks in these are low at first. I remember getting a U (ungraded-when you don’t score enough marks to pass) in 2 papers in my mock exams in Year 11. As I had never failed an exam before, I was devastated and indeed cried openly in class when I got these results. However, in the real exams, I got a CC for Science which was the subject in which I got one of the Us and I got an A in Religious Education which was the second subject in which I received a U for the mock paper. A lot of it, I believe, was down to the fact that, as mock exams are not public exams, I was not entitled to extra time in these so it proves just how much of a difference extra time can make in a lot of cases.

Like a lot of people with Aspergers, I am a perfectionist and I also have a very literal understanding of the world. One example is when I knew that my predicted grade for French was an A. I was panicking before my French Oral Exam (one situation that always makes me anxious is talking to people one on one in such a formal environment even though it was with my teacher who I had known for a year and a half, combined with the fact that I knew the whole conversation was being recorded and I hate the thought of other people listening to my voice as I have heard my voice on recordings and think it’s hideous!) and got quite tearful. After I had calmed down and taken the exam, my teacher commented that she thought it was definitely a B grade standard answer. Now I know that a B is a very good grade and, in most of my other subjects, I would have been ecstatic to get a B but, because I had been predicted an A, I had taken it literally that I needed an A in every single component of the exam and I became very upset that I hadn’t appeared to meet this expectation in the oral exam and felt that I had let everyone down. As it turns out, I did get an A overall in French so all the anxiety was for nothing. All I would ask of people taking exams is that you try your best. I know there is an extraordinary amount of pressure on students today to get high grades (a lot more than when I was at school) and I think it’s awful that so many students are experiencing depression and anxiety trying to achieve these grades because they feel like they are letting their families and schools down if they don’t do as well as is hoped. Of course, the cruel irony is that, the more stressed and anxious someone is when sitting an exam, the less likely they are to perform to the best of their ability. It is one of those scenarios where a little bit of anxiety is helpful to make you focus but too much anxiety can really affect someone’s performance. I would urge people to confide in their parents or teachers if they are feeling very anxious during the exam period so that strategies can be worked on to reduce this anxiety, even something as simple as sitting the exams alone with just one invigilator, as I mentioned earlier.

Of course, it goes without saying that all exam rules must be followed. Your future is too important to risk being disqualified from any exams. I always found that the routine of leaving your bags and folders outside the exam hall got me “into the zone” and I actually relished the predictability of it.

The part of exams that I found the most nerve wracking was waiting for the results. I am the sort of person who analyses every answer I wrote after the exam has been sent away for marking-the person who always asks other people, “What did you write for that question?” For the whole of the summer period, I would be dwelling on the exams and wondering what results I had received. The nerves I suffered on results days were awful-I would wake up feeling sick and then I would start on the whole internal debate where one side of me would be saying “I can’t cope!” and the other would be saying, “There’s nothing you can change now! Just go and get the results!” I was actually so nervous when checking my degree results that two of my friends had to go and check them for me. When I received my A Level results, I was so overwhelmed with receiving them that I couldn’t actually work out whether I had received the grades I needed for my university course and I had to get a teacher to help me work it out.

I was lucky enough to have received the grades needed to progress on to the next stage each time. For people with Aspergers who don’t achieve these, it can be an extremely anxious time, particularly as we have difficulties with change. If this has been your experience, there are always people who can support you through this nerve wracking time.

Overall, please don’t feel that you have let anybody down as long as you have tried your best. Things happen-sometimes the question papers are unusually hard and often the phrasing in exam questions is confusing for somebody who takes language literally. As long as you know that you have tried your best, that’s all you need to worry about. Exams can be retaken and, when you look at it, exams are not what you should be judged on as a person anyway. There are lots of intelligent people out there who failed their exams for various reasons-it does not make them any less intelligent. Exams will always make people stressed and anxious-just try not to let them overwhelm you and stress you out to the point of illness.

Congratulations to everyone who has received their exam results over these past two weeks and good luck to anyone who may be waiting on results.


4 Responses to Aspergers and Exams

  1. maximusaurus says:

    As someone with Asperger’s who has completed University, meditation and relaxation exercises helped me immensely with exams.

  2. Matty says:

    Thankyou so much for sharing this information my aspergers child is appearing for exams shortly it gave me some idea how i can help him and reassure him

  3. RMui says:

    Thank you for this information. I work in a Secondary school with many ASD pupils. One in particular is currently finding the exam period very stressful. This has given me a starting point and lots of strategies to try and help relieve the stress and anxiety.

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