Friday 16 November 2018

Autism, School Examinations & Tests

How do we measure autistic abilities in a meaningful way?  This is a situation that faces most teaching staff, given that 1 in 30 school pupils is likely to be autistic.  There is little formal literature around the needs and challenges for autistic pupils, so many schools are left having to guess the best solutions.

I'm an autism consultant, Director of an autism-specific company acting as a 'Chambers' for many of the top international names in Psychiatry & Psychology and providing CPD training.  I spent many years as a School Governor with responsibility for SEND, including for a specialist autism school.  Presently, enjoying a Post Grad course towards a Masters Degree in Autism, to build on research around this fantastic neurodiversity.  All of this is done with brilliant supportive teams, many of them entirely autistic. I have been training teaching staff on autism basics and sensory needs for two decades now, with colleagues.  Important to put this advice in context. 

Let's have a quick look at the basics.  Firstly, as we know, autism is a part of human diversity, a difference in how the brain processes incoming information.  It has strengths and areas needing support, and those vary from person to person. Other blogs here describe more about autism itself.   But there are several major differences in understanding.

Firstly, impossible sensory environments.  Fluorescent lighting is in most classrooms, and creates a strobe effect.  Clattering and chatting in surrounding rooms can sound deafening to autistic pupils who are noise-sensitive.  The photo above is how I see a classroom.  Not fun.

Secondly, the instructions from the invigilator or teacher can be baffling for the literal (and many autistic people are indeed highly literal).  "You may turn the paper over now" perhaps means, "You may begin".  But I've seen pupils follow that instruction literally,and then sit there for the next hour, assuming they have now fulfilled all the instructions.  Really, they had indeed done as they were asked.    "Please do the test on the table" may result in a pupil climbing on the table, as seemingly requested.

Then, there's the hell of the questions.  "How many 6s are in 18?"  Er, none at all.  There's a 1 and an 8.  Neither of those digits is a 6.  Or if I write out all the numbers...
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10,11,12,13,14,15,16,17,18  clearly there are two sixes amongst all of that.  So, it's either none, or two.  Rephrase the question if you want an answer of three.

Then, there's autistic need for perfection.  We're designed for it, and it's not a flaw.  It's what keeps planes flying, the internet working, medicines functioning well, seatbelts saving lives, parachutes opening on request.  Autistic minds also create incredible art, amazing music.  Making an error is, for us,  an inbuilt emergency and means we absolutely must correct it.  That's the brain design.  So, if we know we've made an error, the impact is simply huge.  Strategies to cope, and correct or go to the next question, are vital, and need thorough practising before.

There's also autistic time difficulties.  How long is an hour?  Some may need assistance with understanding how long they have left to do a test.  Some may need prompting to continue, seemingly getting 'stuck' and suddenly stopping.

We also have the tricky situation around handwriting.  Many benefit from being able to use a laptop rather than a pen, because some have physical difficulties that mean tendons, ligaments and muscles respond differently to commands to move - and handwriting can become painful beyond measure, or difficult to control.  If no laptops are available, give a lot of consideration to a pen or pencil that is really easy to grip.  A good Occupational Therapist can help a lot with design and use.

What if all of this still results in a very 'spiky profile', where there's really good results in some subjects, and something way below expectations in other subjects?  Often schools are prompted to push the pupil to put all their effort into the weaker subjects, but in reality their path to a good career and a successful life is almost always to specialise. The earlier that can be achieved, in good and sensible ways, the better.

Autistic pupils are fantastic, when enabled to thrive, and enabled to give of their best.  Whether they are able to achieve a basic level, or a PhD, each and every one is a person who can add so much to our lives in schools.   Getting the right understanding of autism is vital to let them give of their best.

Thank you for reading.