Coping with exams when you’ve Asperger’s syndrome

Exam situations can present an enormous challenge for anyone with Asperger’s Syndrome.

Written by Adam Harris


As someone with Asperger's syndrome, exam situations present an enormous challenge for me and I find the whole process both stressful and frustrating. Exams present two key challenges to me: (a) the requirement to sit still and focus on one thing for extended periods of time and (b) the need to prioritise questions based on marks and manage your time accordingly.

If you have met me you will know that I am a person who likes to move around, even when I meet someone for coffee I have a tendency to move in my chair and talk with my hands. When at home in order to complete a task, such as writing this, I need to get up and move around to let off some steam. A poor concentration span is a problem that affects many students. However for me, this is something that is a struggle inside school and out. When I assign myself a task, I find that I need to get up every few minutes and clear my mind or if the task is challenging I may need to even stop the task for a period, go do something else and come back to it.

With this in mind, you can imagine my own exam experience. I find myself doing well for the first question, especially if I find a topic on the paper that I am comfortable with. However, after I complete this I feel a surge of energy in my body, telling me to get up which I have to try to resist, which in turn affects my concentration on the paper. In recent months, I have found it useful to split the exam in two so that after I complete one question I may take a quick toilet break just so I can have two minutes to stretch my legs and clear my mind. This is something that has certainly eased the pressure, but does not solve the problem completely.

What I find especially hard to deal with is exam days with two or more papers scheduled on the one day. I can just about do two hours but even with a break, having another two or three-hour exam on the same day is almost impossible. I find it draining and I definitely see deterioration in my concentration between the two papers.

I think a lot of people with Asperger's syndrome or other conditions on the autistic spectrum find concentration and prioritisation difficult. In an exam, I have a habit of writing a huge amount for the questions, which I like, thus leaving myself little time for the remaining questions. When I do mess up my time, I always find this very demoralising as I try so hard to remain focused on the paper, which is easier said that done when you are hyper-stimulant and have a habit of day dreaming, and know the information but yet just cannot get it onto paper in time. These are both areas that I am working hard to improve ahead of my own Leaving Cert in June.

So you may be wondering what I am suggesting should happen to address these problems? I think much of what I have mentioned very much centres around my own need to work better and indeed rise to whatever challenges the education system presents. However, I also think there are areas that must be considered for reform, not only for the benefit of people with conditions such as Asperger's syndrome but also to give exams more real-world significance. I think the system must move towards more continuous assessment, just as no employer would measure the ability of an employee in two hours, it is not right that the state measures two years of work in this manner.

Instead they should look to continuously assess students alongside exams in order to benefit those who have a vast knowledge but simply do not perform in exams or maybe were just having a bad day.  This would not only benefit students with disabilities, but would also help many other students and give a more accurate overview of a student's performance.

Our work is supported by