Autism and exam stress: 10 tips from personal experience
When I was sixteen, I took fourteen exams in three weeks.
In the next two years, I took another sixteen plus a bunch of resits too. At university, I took twenty-four.
I did all of them without having any idea about my Asperger Syndrome. Looking back, knowing that little fact might have helped.
So I’m no stranger to exams. This doesn’t mean I like them – I’m the guy who teaches autistic teenagers to prepare for their GCSEs, and I still don’t like them. I see them as a necessary evil: a method of showing future employers how capable you are in certain subjects (or at least, how capable you are at taking exams in certain subjects), which may be painful at the time but will pay off later.
When I told Autistic Not Weird’s Facebook community that I was writing this article [all links open in new windows], the news was met with enthusiasm. Clearly my students and I aren’t alone in finding exams stressful, whilst also navigating autism-related issues as well.
So here’s my advice to you, and it’s important that you pick and choose which parts of this article work for you. I can tell you what works for me and for others I know, but ultimately it’s you who takes the exams so you should choose your own revision methods.
(A quick word for Americans reading this: the word “revision” is the word us Brits use to mean “studying”. I don’t quite know why.)
(And a quick word for British parents – if you’re reading this and looking for advice for 11-year-olds taking their SATs, you and your children may find this article more helpful.)
Ten bits of first-hand exam advice from an autistic guy who’s taken a ton of them:
1. Make a study timetable that works for you. (Oh yeah, and actually stick to it.)
I would spend entire afternoons planning a schedule for my revision/studying, and then spend the next day and a half following it. Then I’d spend another afternoon planning a new schedule, and so on. Obviously, this was not ideal.
But a good timetable can do wonders – not just for studying purposes, but for stress levels too. (I don’t know about you, but I’m far less stressed when I actually know what I’m doing.)
So what should my timetable look like?
That’s entirely up to you. It should take a format that works for you and your brain – not everybody else’s. If planning hour-by-hour works for you, then do it. If planning whole-morning or whole-afternoon chunks works, then do that. For me, it was day by day.
Back in 2006, in my second year of a mathematics degree, I took this screenshot of my revision timetable to send to a friend (kids these days will never know the joy of MSN Messenger). And since I never bothered to delete it, here it is.
This probably looks complicated on first glance.
But it worked for me. It didn’t need to work for anyone else. (Again, you can take advice from this or completely ignore it, depending on what works for you.)
But if I’m timetabling every hour for weeks on end, won’t that make me go crazy?
Possibly. But more likely, you’ll just get tired after a while and stop following your timetable.
This is why I emphasise the important of allowing for breaks. Literally, have actual spaces in your timetable that say “have a break”.
It can be tempting (especially if your brain is as focussed as mine is) to think “well logically, the more time I spend studying the better I’ll do in the exam” – and even though it’s logical, it’s not helpful when your brain keeps telling you that while you’re lying in bed or eating your dinner. But breaks help enormously. When you’re eating dinner, focus solely on enjoying your food. When you’re in bed, focus solely on resting.
Put breaks in your timetable. Partly because they’ll help with your energy levels, partly because they’ll make it easier to stick to your timetable, but mainly because you’ll deserve them.
Can my breaks include videogames?
That depends on your level of self-discipline.
I’m not going to tell you that videogames are the spawn of Satan or whatever. I know they can help with stress relief or relaxation. Sonic the Hedgehog was half my childhood.
But I also know people who played so much World of Warcraft that they didn’t even bother turning up for their exams. (This was ten years ago, and since then they’ve lived their adulthoods without educational qualifications- just because they needed to gather walrus tusks or something on a videogame a decade earlier.)
Because that’s the tricky thing about videogames. They’re not just addictive: they’re deliberately designed to be addictive. In World of Warcraft there’s always ‘just one more task’ to do. As an adult, I’ve lost whole weekends to the Civilization series because of the ‘just one more turn’ nature of the games.
If your self-discipline is strong enough for you to set an alarm for one hour’s time, and actually stop playing after that hour instead of ‘just doing one more thing’, then yes – play videogames to celebrate well-deserved breaks.
If you don’t have that self-discipline, then seriously – leave those missions until the summer break.
2. Knowing what the question means is as important as knowing how to answer.
If I had money for every time I saw a student getting an answer wrong because they didn’t interpret the question correctly, I’d be rich enough to retire. Sometimes it’s a reading error (which can often be solved by reading the question twice). Sometimes the question’s just difficult to understand.
With several subjects (English especially), I’ve known several autistic students who struggle to interpret the questions. It’s probably our habit of literal thinking. Key culprits include:
“What is your understanding of the topic discussed in this text?”
Which is incredibly vague, but basically means “write about what you can learn by reading this text, and how the writer helps you learn it”. And also:
“How does the writer use language features to ________?”
Which can also sound vague, unless you’re clued up on what qualifies as ‘language features’.
Oh, and the last practice paper I did with my students asked them to choose a moment of their life they were proud of, and write about how it benefited others. Which was a pretty crap question to ask a generation of students with self-esteem issues. (For the record, you’re allowed to just invent stuff for those questions. The examiner will never know – and it’s a test of your writing skills, not how you’ve lived your life.)
My advice: find as many past exam papers as you can (Google the subject, the name of the exam board and the words “past papers”), read through the questions and think “how would I answer this?” Then, if there are questions that confuse you, ask your teacher for a translation.
3. Write your own material if you want.
I was the kind of child who learned about the solar system in class and always asked “why do they force us to remember ‘My Very Easy Method Just Speeds Up Naming Planets’? Isn’t it just easier to remember ‘Mercury Venus Earth Mars Jupiter Saturn Uranus Neptune Pluto’? (Yep- when I was your age, Pluto was a planet.)
I was 14 – a decade away from learning I was autistic – when I first realised my revision methods were different to everyone else’s. That I understood the ‘complicated’ methods far better than the simplified ‘student-friendly’ ones.
So from then on, I wrote my own miniature revision guides.
Not massive ones – that would be far too time-consuming – but I’d rewrite the occasional page from the actual revision guide in a way that was accessible to me. It was easier than memorising methods that were designed with non-autistic students in mind.
And in the run-up to exams, I’d have A1-size sheets of notes spread across the walls in every room. Each sheet would be a big poster of all the things I was finding difficult to remember. One sheet for history, one for geography, and so on. That way I could revise while casually walking around the house, or just staring into space (which I did all the time anyway, so I thought I might as well make it productive).
My parents were happy for me to do this. After the first few days, my sheets became like part of the wallpaper.
Oh, and it was enormously satisfying when I pulled down a poster after each exam. Watching the walls get less and less covered in paper really helped me relax.
4. You don’t have to do this alone.
In my school we had ‘study leave’ before exam season: several weeks where lessons were cancelled so you had time to stay at home and learn at your own pace. It’s a great idea in principle. And I spent a lot of study leave days around my friends’ houses: we’d spend the whole afternoon revising together, and the evening enjoying ourselves when the work was done. It was a strategy that worked well for us.
And this goes beyond meeting up with friends. On half my study leave days I went into school or into university, specifically to ask for advice on things I was struggling with. Naturally I was nervous about annoying the staff, until I realised that 1) my grades were important enough for me to be annoying, and 2) this is literally what teachers are paid for. (Years later I became a primary school teacher who happily spent time explaining things after class, so I practised what I preached.)
So study with your friends. Go into school and ask your teachers questions. Just because you’re not in lessons doesn’t mean you’re forbidden from being in contact with anyone.
5. Avoiding the tricky stuff won’t make it go away.
I had a friend during my A-Levels who was struggling with her English. Two months before our exams, she had her own method of dealing with those struggles.
She simply stopped turning up for lessons and hoped for the best.
It took her a month to return, and surprise surprise, she was even further behind than before. And when I asked her why she was avoiding the lessons, her only reply was:
“I don’t know… I think I was hoping it would all just go away.”
It didn’t make sense, and deep down she knew it. And the exam came just as quickly anyway. (Incredibly she got a good mark, largely due to revising in a way that worked for her. So if you’ve been missing lessons yourself, it’s not too late.)
I often tell students that it’s totally understandable to feel nervous and stressed about exams. But if you’re going to feel nervous and stressed, you might as well be around people who can actually help you with it.
6. Stay the hell away from energy drinks.
Energy drinks exploded onto the scene when I was at university. And at first, I bought several of them believing they’d actually help me study. I mean, the student union shop was packed to the ceiling with them, so they must help with revision, right?
Age and maturity have made me realise that they weren’t in the shop because they helped us. They were in the shop because they sold well.
Some supermarkets in Britain have actually banned the sale of energy drinks to under-16s because of health concerns. (They’re mainly heart-related, but they can also give you diarrhoea. Which is a little distracting in the exam.)
And in my experience, they didn’t even work. I only felt 5% more awake, and even that was probably psychosomatic. (As in, I just told myself I was more awake and that alone made me feel awake. Like that one friend who drinks a non-alcoholic beer thinking it’s alcoholic, and then suddenly starts acting drunk.)
If you want to know how to conserve or build up energy, follow the advice in this brilliant PSA.
That’s right – get some sleep.
I know why it’s tempting to stay up until 1am every night, getting up at 7am, cramming in as much as possible. Because the more time you spend awake, the more opportunities you have to fill your brain, right?
Actually, no. The brain is so much better at learning when it’s properly awake, rather than just being kept awake. These days when I watch a TV episode on Netflix at 1am, I have to watch it again the next day because I don’t remember what happened. (And this is a brain with three university degrees, that could name 91 species of dinosaur from memory at the age of seven. Because I got my sleep back then.)
Oh, and have you noticed how you’re usually much less stressed after a decent night’s sleep?
Sleep matters. Get some.
And screw energy drinks. They’re overpriced, bad for your health, make little difference, and make people think they can go without the down-time that humans have spent thousands of years needing.
7. What to do the night before the exam:
I know time is limited, but I would not recommend studying into the deep hours of the night. If you’ve had a good timetable and stuck to it, you’ll have put in enough hours anyway.
If studying late at night works for you, then fair enough. But only if you can do so without feeling stressed. If late-night revision stresses you out, don’t do it. You can’t afford for that stress to carry over into the morning.
And if you need relaxation time, choose a TV episode instead of a video game. TV shows have a ‘just one more episode’ lure similar to videogames, but the episode breaks are more distinctive and it’s easier to notice the opportunities to say “ok, that’s enough- time to sleep”.
8. What to do the morning of the exam:
Basic advice. But do it.
And don’t reach for an energy drink- have a glass of orange juice. It tastes much better, and it’s healthier. (And absolutely don’t do what one of my classmates did and drink a 2-litre bottle of Coke before a two and a half hour history exam!)
I’ve heard some people suggest that revising on the morning of the exam is a bad idea and it causes additional stress. If that’s the case with you, don’t do it.
In my case though, bringing a final sheet of notes to the outside of the exam hall helped me – both academically and with my anxiety. The sheet would contain the last few things I needed some more time with, and I’d bring it as far as I could without entering the exam hall with it.
Find comfortable clothes to wear if you can (obviously you’ll need to stay within the school’s uniform policy). Bring water into the exam if you’re allowed. If you think you may get the sniffles, bring tissues. Oh, and bring several pens/pencils, not just one.
Also, be selective about who you talk to. Happiness may be contagious, but so is fear. If you’re outside the exam hall around a bunch of people who are panicking, move away from them. If possible, talk to someone who’s less stressed about the exam than you.
(The exception to this rule is if you have a friend who’s worried. Feel free to try calming them down and being supportive. But do it in a way that spreads your relaxation to them, rather than taking on board their stress.)
9. What to do during the exam:
I’ll use bullet-points for this one.
- Know that you’re only a few hours away from being free from this exam.
- Read every question before answering. Then reread it. You only get marks if you answer the actual question.
- In English exams where you have extra material to read, read the exam questions first. Then you’ll know what you’re looking out for in the extra material.
- Underline the important stuff. Always.
- When you finish a sentence, reread it to see if it makes sense.
- Make sure you’ve got your timings right. This means looking at how many marks each question is worth. If you have 90 minutes for an 80-mark maths exam, spend roughly one minute per mark (but if you need to go a tiny bit over, don’t be afraid to).
- If you need to skip a question, do so. Don’t spend ten minutes on a one-mark question you don’t get. (Equally though, don’t just skip a question because you don’t like it at first glance. Have a try before skipping it.)
- If you need to occasionally take thirty seconds to relax and look around the room, do so. Just don’t turn it into several minutes.
- Remember how much you deserve to succeed.
10. And finally, the immortal words of an old lecturer of mine…
One of my lecturers – perhaps the most quotable educator I’ve ever known – once came out with this beautiful advice to a roomful of anxious students.
“When you’re sat in the exam, do not panic. If you feel a bit of stress, just look out the window at the sky or a tree, and remember how small and how unimportant this exam is. I used to do that.”
-Professor Anvar Shukurov, sometime around 2007.
And if that was good enough for the Professor of Applied Mathematics at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, it was good enough for me.
(Well, these days he’s the Professor of Astrophysical Fluid Dynamics. But the point still stands.)
Exams may be worth taking seriously, but they won’t decide whether you get married or have children. They may give you an opportunity to do yourself proud, but they aren’t the exclusive key to living a wonderful life.
On a similar note, it might be worth browsing through this article about SATs (which are end of primary school tests for British 11-year-olds, but a few points apply to taking tests generally). In particular, read the point towards the end where it tells you what these tests measure and what they don’t. Long story short, your worth as a person is not defined by your academic ability. The quality of your character is measured by things that these exams can never decide.
And that’s it from me – I’d like to wish all of you all the very best in your exams, and I hope this article helps even if just a little bit. You’re more than welcome to join Autistic Not Weird’s Facebook community, and I also make advice videos on YouTube. Finally (mainly for adults reading this), writing for Autistic Not Weird has become my job thanks to my awesome Patreon supporters: so if you find my work useful, feel free to look around my page to see if any of the rewards stand out to you.
(Also, I’m happy to send out printable versions of this article to those who’d find it useful. Just send me a message through Facebook.)
Oh, but there is some more advice!
Once in a while I do article extensions for my Patreon supporters, as a thank you for helping me do this for a living. For those who support me at the appropriate level (or want to), tips 11 to 15 about autism and exam stress can be found here. Hope they help!
Take care, and all the best to all of you.
Chris Bonnello / Captain Quirk
Chris Bonnello is an autism speaker, available to lead talks and training sessions from the perspective of an autistic former teacher. For further information please click here (opens in new window).
Copyright © Chris Bonnello 2015-2018
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