Chris Bonnello is a former primary school teacher and now a special needs tutor. He was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome when he was 25 and has gone on to become an author and international speaker and is the genius behind the award winning autisticnotweird.com.  He has kindly shared his top tips for for exam preparation, for students about to sit their final exams. Chris is pictured here presenting at the Sydney Opera House in April 2018.

Autism and exam preparation: top tips from personal experience – Part One

I’m autistic, and I’ve faced more exams than I care to remember. Now I tutor autistic students, and this is the advice I give them.

When I was sixteen, I took fourteen exams in three weeks.

In the next two years, I took another sixteen plus a bunch of resits too. At university, I took twenty-four.

I did all of them without having any idea about my Asperger Syndrome. Looking back, knowing that little fact might have helped.

So I’m no stranger to exams. This doesn’t mean I like them – I’m the guy who teaches autistic teenagers to prepare for their exams, and I still don’t like them. I see them as a necessary evil: a method of showing future employers how capable you are in certain subjects (or at least, how capable you are at taking exams in certain subjects), which may be painful at the time but will pay off later.

So here’s my advice to you, and it’s important that you pick and choose which parts of these tips work for you. I can tell you what works for me and for others I know, but ultimately it’s you who takes the exams so you should choose your own revision methods.

  • Make a study timetable that works for you. (Oh yeah, and actually stick to it.)

I would spend entire afternoons planning a schedule for my revision/studying, and then spend the next day and a half following it. Then I’d spend another afternoon planning a new schedule, and so on. Obviously, this was not ideal.

But a good timetable can do wonders – not just for studying purposes, but for stress levels too. (I don’t know about you, but I’m far less stressed when I actually know what I’m doing.)

So what should my timetable look like?

That’s entirely up to you. It should take a format that works for you and your brain – not everybody else’s. If planning hour-by-hour works for you, then do it. If planning whole-morning or whole-afternoon chunks works, then do that. For me, it was day by day.

But if I’m timetabling every hour for weeks on end, won’t that make me go crazy?

Possibly. But more likely, you’ll just get tired after a while and stop following your timetable.

This is why I emphasise the important of allowing for breaks. Literally, have actual spaces in your timetable that say “have a break”.

It can be tempting (especially if your brain is as focussed as mine is) to think “well logically, the more time I spend studying the better I’ll do in the exam” – and even though it’s logical, it’s not helpful when your brain keeps telling you that while you’re lying in bed or eating your dinner. But breaks help enormously. When you’re eating dinner, focus solely on enjoying your food. When you’re in bed, focus solely on resting.

Put breaks in your timetable. Partly because they’ll help with your energy levels, partly because they’ll make it easier to stick to your timetable, but mainly because you’ll deserve them.

  • Knowing what the question means is as important as knowing how to answer.

If I had money for every time I saw a student getting an answer wrong because they didn’t interpret the question correctly, I’d be rich enough to retire. Sometimes it’s a reading error (which can often be solved by reading the question twice). Sometimes the question’s just difficult to understand.

With several subjects (English especially), I’ve known several autistic students who struggle to interpret the questions. It’s probably our habit of literal thinking. Key culprits include:

“What is your understanding of the topic discussed in this text?”

Which is incredibly vague, but basically means “write about what you can learn by reading this text, and how the writer helps you learn it”. And also:

“How does the writer use language features to ________?”

Which can also sound vague, unless you’re clued up on what qualifies as ‘language features’.

Oh, and the last practice paper I did with my students asked them to choose a moment of their life they were proud of, and write about how it benefitted others. Which was a pretty crap question to ask a generation of students with self-esteem issues. (For the record, you’re allowed to just invent stuff for those questions. The examiner will never know – and it’s a test of your writing skills, not how you’ve lived your life.)

My advice: find as many past exam papers as you can (Google the subject, the name of the exam board and the words “past papers”), read through the questions and think “how would I answer this?” Then, if there are questions that confuse you, ask your teacher for a translation.

  • Write your own material if you want.

I was the kind of child who learned about the solar system in class and always asked “why do they force us to remember ‘My Very Easy Method Just Speeds Up Naming Planets’? Isn’t it just easier to remember ‘Mercury Venus Earth Mars Jupiter Saturn Uranus Neptune Pluto’? (Yep- when I was your age, Pluto was a planet.)

I was 14 – a decade away from learning I was autistic – when I first realised my revision methods were different to everyone else’s. That I understood the ‘complicated’ methods far better than the simplified ‘student-friendly’ ones.

So from then on, I wrote my own miniature revision guides.

Not massive ones – that would be far too time-consuming – but I’d rewrite the occasional page from the actual revision guide in a way that was accessible to me. It was easier than memorising methods that were designed with non-autistic students in mind.

And in the run-up to exams, I’d have A1-size sheets of notes spread across the walls in every room. Each sheet would be a big poster of all the things I was finding difficult to remember. One sheet for history, one for geography, and so on. That way I could revise while casually walking around the house, or just staring into space (which I did all the time anyway, so I thought I might as well make it productive).

My parents were happy for me to do this. After the first few days, my sheets became like part of the wallpaper.

Oh, and it was enormously satisfying when I pulled down a poster after each exam. Watching the walls get less and less covered in paper really helped me relax.

  • You don’t have to do this alone.

In my school we had ‘study leave’ before exam season: several weeks where lessons were cancelled so you had time to stay at home and learn at your own pace. It’s a great idea in principle. And I spent a lot of study leave days around my friends’ houses: we’d spend the whole afternoon revising together, and the evening enjoying ourselves when the work was done. It was a strategy that worked well for us.

And this goes beyond meeting up with friends. On half my study leave days I went into school or into university, specifically to ask for advice on things I was struggling with. Naturally I was nervous about annoying the staff, until I realised that 1) my grades were important enough for me to be annoying, and 2) this is literally what teachers are paid for. (Years later I became a primary school teacher who happily spent time explaining things after class, so I practised what I preached.)

So study with your friends. Go into school and ask your teachers questions. Just because you’re not in lessons doesn’t mean you’re forbidden from being in contact with anyone.

  • Avoiding the tricky stuff won’t make it go away.

I had a friend during my A-Levels who was struggling with her English. Two months before our exams, she had her own method of dealing with those struggles.

She simply stopped turning up for lessons and hoped for the best.

It took her a month to return, and surprise, surprise, she was even further behind than before. And when I asked her why she was avoiding the lessons, her only reply was:

“I don’t know… I think I was hoping it would all just go away.”

It didn’t make sense, and deep down she knew it. And the exam came just as quickly anyway. (Incredibly she got a good mark, largely due to revising in a way that worked for her. So if you’ve been missing lessons yourself, it’s not too late.)

I often tell students that it’s totally understandable to feel nervous and stressed about exams. But if you’re going to feel nervous and stressed, you might as well be around people who can actually help you with it.

  • Get some sleep

That’s right – get some sleep.

I know why it’s tempting to stay up until 1am every night, getting up at 7am, cramming in as much as possible. Because the more time you spend awake, the more opportunities you have to fill your brain, right?

Actually, no. The brain is so much better at learning when it’s properly awake, rather than just being kept awake. These days when I watch a TV episode on Netflix at 1am, I have to watch it again the next day because I don’t remember what happened. (And this is a brain with three university degrees, that could name 91 species of dinosaur from memory at the age of seven. Because I got my sleep back then.)

Oh, and have you noticed how you’re usually much less stressed after a decent night’s sleep?

Sleep matters. Get some.

And screw energy drinks. They’re overpriced, bad for your health, make little difference, and make people think they can go without the down-time that humans have spent thousands of years needing.

Take care, Chris Bonnello

Next week we will share Chris’s exam tips for the night before and on the day.