Exams are stressful for everybody, but especially autistic people. The heavy work loads and need for disciplined study, along with the knowledge that these exams can shape your future are especially difficult to handle when you’re already working hard to function in a neurotypical world.
As an autistic person, I feel a responsibility to reach out to my fellow autistic students to help them achieve their potential. You’ve got a rocky road ahead of you, but with a few simple tips and good habits life can become far more manageable.
Much of this advice can be useful to neurotypical people, both to help them with their studies and to support their autistic friends.
Use Your Summer Wisely
You’ll have heard the post-GCSE summer be described as ‘the best summer of your life’ by encouraging teachers or instagram accounts featuring beachy teens who appear to be coasting through life and exams. While the feeling of freedom after months of gruelling exams is liberating, imagining that you will come of age over the summer like an iconic ’80’s movie is setting yourself up for disappointment.
There’s no right way to spend your summer; lounging in the sun (or your bedroom), losing yourself in a fantasy world can be just as rewarding as some people would find a music festival. It also helps take your mind off the looming stress of Results’ Day.
Your post-GCSE summer is also a prime opportunity to prepare for the academic challenges of the year ahead. Whatever you’ve heard about the leap from GCSEs to A-Levels, it’s larger than you anticipate and can feel like having the rug pulled out from under you. It’s important that you start the year strong, as those precious first few weeks will shape your studying habits for the rest of the year.
Don’t let yourself forget everything you’ve learned over the past year disappear in a few months. If you’re taking maths or a scientific subject, there are books and online courses to give you foundational skills to bridge the gap between courses. For English and history, try and find out which books or modules you’ll be studying and do some advance-reading or watch a relevant documentary. If you’re taking a subject you’ve never studied before (like psychology or sociology), read a couple of books or watch a YouTube series which introduces the concepts you’re going to be studying. It’s much easier to learn something in depth when you’re already vaguely familiar with it.
Wall-Charts are Your Friend
Even though you’re only take three or four subjects at A-Level, the workload is even higher than at GCSE and you’re supposed to complete it to a much higher standard. On top of that, you need to factor in time to spend on yourself and for other commitments. If like a lot of autistic people, you have poor executive functioning and struggle with planning and organising your work, you need to develop a system to make sure you do not fall behind. A-Levels generally require more independent learning than you’ve had to do previously, so it’s important for you to take initiative with planning your schedule.
Place a wall-chart somewhere you can easily see from your desk and mark out the length of academic terms, any significant dates and deadlines, and any exams and progress tests. Tick each day off as you go.
Another trick is to print out the syllabus for your course and mark off each topic as you complete it. An idea might be to colour-code the syllabus to mark your performance in each subject. When it comes to revision, this will provide a handy checklist for all your topics so you cover everything.
If everything gets too much for you to handle, let staff know. Autistic teenagers are particularly vulnerable to burnout, since our brains have to work harder than those of our neurotypical peers to keep up with the world around us. Make sure you set aside time to recharge when you’re feeling drained and if it’s not helping, explain to your teachers. If you’re normally a good student, they will be able to see that something’s not right and give you time to recover.
Get Some Exercise
I’m no athlete. Competitive sports happen too quickly for my brain to process what is going on, and I struggle with the level of subtle communication required to be a part of a dynamic sports team.
Some autistic people excel at sport. But if you’re like me, it’s still vital that you get regular exercise.
Exercise promotes the production of dopamine which relieves stress, and helps you concentrate on your work and remember what you’ve learned. Paradoxically, regular exercise makes you more energised during the day and sleep better at night.
At some schools, A-Level students get to choose which sports they participate in and how often. If not, it would be worth talking to your school’s leadership team to discuss getting involved with solo sports. That way you can get all the benefits of sport, but without the confusing and overwhelming aspects which can cause great stress in autistic people.
After hitting the books for hours on end, it’s tempting to reach for the sugary snacks to provide a quick energy boost and satisfy those cravings. Unfortunately, doing this often will not only be bad for your health, but it will not help you study.
If you need a sugar hit, opt for dried fruit instead of chocolate and sweets. Nuts and seeds can also be good for making sure you get enough protein. Natural yoghurt, granola, rice cakes…there are so many options for nutritious study-snacks and it can be fun to experiment and see what works for you.
It’s also important that you don’t forget to eat meals. This may sound simple, but it’s easy to replace meals with snacks when you’re deep in revision. Set aside time to eat healthy, balanced meals which are rich in brain food. Resist the temptation to eat while you’re studying, as well, since you can kill two birds with one stone by relaxing while eating dinner.
Communicate With Staff
Teachers cannot read your mind – thankfully. Talk to your school’s support team about how they can help you achieve your full potential in lessons. If you need to sit in the same place all year round or you can’t have certain people sitting near you, let the staff know. If you struggle with classroom noise, look into noise-cancelling headphones and make sure you get permission from the necessary leadership teams to be allowed to wear them during lessons.
I can recommend wearing headphones especially strongly. It is a simple and reasonable accommodation which has dramatically improved my quality of life. I am not able to work in environments where there is some background noise, and any attempts to get people to be quiet would cause conflict.
Make sure you have somewhere safe and quiet you can go to study or rest if you feel overwhelmed. Most schools have libraries. However in some cases these are poorly managed during breaks and are not places where you can actually recharge. Even sensitive teachers may not be aware why libraries may not be suitable places for you to retreat, so you may need to find a classroom or other quiet space where you know you can go to calm down.
Some autistic people may not be comfortable with having teachers knowing about their condition. This is an individual choice. However if your school do not know about your autism, they cannot put measures in place to help you.
What do you do to manage the pressures of A-Levels? I’m especially interested if you’re autistic and have already completed your exams. Leave a comment below and follow The Spyglass Magazine for more content like this in the future.