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Essays & Exams

Essays and exams – no one likes them, most people find them difficult and few of us show our true talents and abilities in their high-pressured settings. 


Essay writing and sitting exams are stressful situations for anyone. For an autistic student, who is already especially prone to complications with overthinking and worrying, they can cause an even greater deal of anxiety.

Within the context of narrow time periods to answer questions and write arguments, these concerns will often grow as deadlines approach closer and closer if you don’t think that you’re doing as well as you should. You might feel you didn’t have enough time to adequately revise and research for your topic or there wasn’t time for you to reach out and talk to your teacher about clarifying a confusing question.

The presence of other students in the exam room can worsen this stress, who are similarly nervous about sitting the same paper. Anxiety is a visible emotion and can trigger similar feelings and behaviour in other people. Moreover, the size of the room itself, whether it’s too big or too small, can seriously interfere with an autistic student’s sensory processing and complicate their concentration abilities.

Successfully articulating what you know, or transferring it from your mind on to paper in the form of a comprehensible answer, can be a huge obstacle. This is a particularly common problem if you’re doing an essay-based subject like English, history or languages. Equally, you might find comprehending certain questions or phrases within the essay or exam challenging. Some assignments, namely those where you have to devise your own question, can really throw you.

Hyperactivity, overstimulation and introversion – each of these factor into the challenges an autistic person faces when attempting to focus on a particular task. This specific problem not only makes studying for essays and exams tough for those of us on the spectrum, but it also makes the actual assignments themselves very challenging, and often isn’t truly reflective of your work ethic or knowledge either.

The desire for perfection and a keen interest in a specific subject can actually bring about as many problems as there are advantages for someone diagnosed with high-functioning autism, or Asperger’s Syndrome, in particular. Students researching and writing for essay-based subjects may find it hard to stay on-task, directly answer the question and use relevant information accordingly, within a set time frame.

Many on the spectrum feel the need to move around and find it difficult to sit still for lengthy periods of time. As a result the requirement to sit still and in one place in an exam hall or special centre can cause frustration and discomfort and lead to increased anxiety and reduced concentration as the exam wears on.

If you or a member of your family are experiencing problems with preparing for or sitting exams it is important to look for help from your school/college and explain your difficulties. Most teachers will be delighted to help in anyway they can if they are just aware of where the issues likes. While different plans and supports will work for different people, below are some common supports:


If you’re about to sit your Leaving Cert, then it’s worth checking out the Disability Access Route to Education (DARE), and applying for it through your CAO application. If your application is successful, then you’ll not just benefit from ensuring that your chosen college is aware of your special educational needs, but it will also enable you to avail of a reduced points entry scheme during the clearing process.

DARE offers autistic students, and others with different disabilities, a fairer chance to enter the college application process, taking into account the obstacles they face whilst completing assignments and exams.

You can read more about DARE, how it works, who runs it and its participating colleges on its website.

Students with specific educational needs, including those who are autistic, can apply for a range of reasonable accommodations at school and at college. These level the playing field, and make writing essays and exams more accessible for affected students. The kinds of supports the scheme offer range from:

  1. Extra time to complete the exam;
  2. Allowing the student to move within the room;
  3. Use of a special chair or desk normally used in the classroom;
  4. Sitting the exam on your own or with a smaller group of students;
  5. Obtaining a scribe to explain questions and or write down your answers for you.

If you’re in school, talk to your Resource Teacher or SENO and see whether you can access this system when sitting tests. The scheme covers in-school exams as well as your Junior and Leaving Cert.

If you’re in third level education, speak to your college’s Disability Services to arrange the supports you feel might be necessary for you to successfully complete assignments and exams.

The Reasonable Accommodation Scheme is ran by the State Examinations Commission as part of the Department of Education and Skills. You read more about it, who’s eligible and what supports it can provide here.

People affected by the challenges listed above must not try and conform to traditional approaches to the exam paper if they find they do not work well for them. Talk to teachers, parents and others about developing an approach to the paper which suits your needs in the exam for example maybe you will decide you will take a tiny break between each question to give your mind a break. Make a plan, try it out beforehand and then stick to it!

All those in the RAS scheme will sit in a special, smaller exam center for state exams and college exams. However students who find anxiety or sitting still/concentration particularly challenging may be able to apply to the relevant authorities to obtain a single student exam center. A doctor’s letter can often be useful supporting evidence in this regard.

Can this be improved? Contact webeditor@asiam.ie if you have any suggestions for this article.

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