Differences between exams and homework from an autism perspective
Some autistic students will demonstrate a good academic standard when completing homework, and yet perform less well when faced with exams. This is clearly not the case for all students, but it is essential that there is an understanding within educational establishments that there may be good reasons behind the disparities so that measures can be taken to ensure that the student is not unfairly discriminated against during exam times. Under the Equality Act students are ‘allowed’ ‘reasonable adjustments’ so that they do not face unlawful discrimination as a result of being autistic, so an understanding of how an autistic student might engage with exams is essential; both so that the student can be given the opportunities to meet their potential, and that a school does not act unlawfully.
Key differences between abilities to engage successfully with homework compared to examinations include:
- Familiar environment
Autistic students can be hugely affected by their environments. It is very likely that there will be a direct correlation between levels of arousal (emotional, sensory, anxiety, etc.) and ability to perform cognitively, so it is vital for all autistic students to be as calm as possible in exam conditions in order for them to perform to their best abilities. Homework (as the name implies) is usually undertaken at home, where the individual is able to identify and access an area in which they are most comfortable to engage in intellectual pursuits. This might be in a very quiet area on their own, or under the covers in bed – each student will likely have their own, preferred, location in which they feel most comfortable. This option is unlikely to be afforded them during exams, which may be a considerable factor to take into account when considering potential disparities between achievement at exams compared to performances with homework.
At home all sorts of choices are likely to be available to the student which is not usually the case for exams. Of particular note, the learning style of the student is likely to be more adhered to at home (often with support from a parent) which is not something that most exams take into account. It is important to note that support around learning styles is not a case of a parent ‘doing it for them’, but rather a parent who has a good understanding of the communication and learning style of the student being able to interpret tasks and present them in an ‘autism friendly’ manner. This ‘translation’ between the predominant neurotype (PNT) modus operandi and the autism cognitive style can make all the difference between a student understanding what is needed, compared to misunderstanding of tasks and wasted energies going in to providing work unrelated to what is required.
In addition to the sorts of support provided by a ‘mentor’ the student will have more choice available to them at home related to their own autism preferences. These are individual to each student and can cover a wide range of aspects of learning – everything from choosing their preferred sensory environment through to ascertaining how long is required to process information.
One of the most critical aspects of homework that works in the favour of the autistic student compared to exams is the duration they have in which to complete. Many autistic students have slow processing time, which means that longer is required for them to complete tasks relative to their PNT peers. Without limitations on time the pressure under which the student works is considerably reduced, which allows the student a better chance of optimising their cognitive capabilities. It may be that the autistic student requires much more time to process information and formulate responses than their peers, and it is often the case that because this occurs ‘behind closed doors’ that schools may not appreciate just how long certain tasks can take. Of course, students will be set tasks at school, which can give teaching staff an indicator of how long the student might require; nonetheless, the time ‘allowed’ for homework compared to exams can be a poignant factor in understanding why a student may fare well in homework tasks and yet not achieve similar results come exam time.
Factors to consider during exams
- Ambiguity of questions
- Writing skills
- Monotropic style
Ambiguity of questions
Many autistic students will process language accurately (or literally). If a question is not absolutely clear, or if there are ambiguities, then there is an increased risk of the student answering the question in an incorrect manner. It is important, therefore, to, make sure that the student has a fair opportunity to ascertain the meaning of the questions and what is required of them in terms of answers.
Many autistic students find handwriting extremely problematic. If this is the case then it is often opportune to provide the student with an alternative form of response. Most obvious is the use of a laptop or computer; some may prefer a scribe, or even in some cases verbal responses might be considered, followed by a transcription of the recorded responses.
If a student has a monotropic (single channelled) processing style then exams will likely be far more demanding for the student than if they were adept at multi-channelling. Moving from one mode of processing to another is likely to take a considerably lengthier time for the monotropic student; this can include moving from one task to the next, or moving from reading an exam paper to responding on a computer. In order to reduce risk of discrimination, it is highly advisable for the educational system to take this into account when examining students.
The following are possible solutions to some of the issues raised:
- Educational ‘mentor’
- Environmental adaptations
- Temporal adjustments
If required, it may be beneficial to have an educational mentor for autistic students. The role would categorically not be to assist the student in any way that would favour them in subject specific academia; rather, it would be to reduce issues raised by the individual’s autism to reduce risk of discrimination. The mentor may be in a position to ascertain whether the student has understood the questions posed, for example.
These may include allowing the use of headphones to block out noises, allowing the student to take exams in an environment of their choosing (there are examples of students taking exams at home under invigilation, for example), or taking the exam in a room on their own.
It may be highly beneficial for the student to be allowed extended time to take their exam. This might include time for breaks, as well as more time to allow for processing of information and formulation of responses. Many students simply cannot process information at the same speed as their peers; this has nothing to do with their academic knowledge, which may be sound, so to disallow the opportunity to engage with the exam in a manner that suits them in terms of processing time would be highly disadvantageous.