Ask an expert: Exam stress and neurodiversity

Kate Plumb headshot

This article was written by Kate Plumb, a neuroaffirmative psychologist who works with children and adolescents.

As the owner of a neuroaffirmative private psychology practice, I get to spend my days hanging out with neurodivergent kids and teens. Prior to this amazing career change, I was a school counsellor with the NSW Department of Education.

I’m also a mum to one teen doing the HSC and another going through subject selection, and I’m married to a high school science teacher. So, I’m surrounded by school, study, learning, stress and neurodivergence on a daily basis. Luckily, advocating for the wellbeing of neurodivergent teens at home and at school is a core aspect of both my clinical work and my parenting life. 

When it comes to supporting teens with exam stress, these are excellent ideas to get started with. But, of course, parenting a neurodivergent teen has some unique challenges, so the advice I give here will have a specific neurodivergent focus. 

The strategies I’ve outlined are evidence-based, but they’ve also evolved from feedback I’ve had from teens I work with, who say they’ve found them to be helpful or useful in some way. When giving them a go, keep in mind that some of them will work for your neurodivergent teen and some won’t, and that others will work only some of the time. 

But don’t rely on just one or two strategies. Get creative and curious! The more strategies you have to work with, the easier it’ll be to change it up if something’s not quite having the results you’re looking for.

I’m worried about my neurodivergent teen’s stress levels during exams. How can I tell if they’re really struggling?

Here are some common things to look out for:

  • Are they avoiding doing homework or answering questions about school? Are they increasing their leisure time, prioritising hanging out with friends, or spending more time watching TV or gaming? Procrastination is often a key indicator of overwhelm. 

  • Be aware of their sleep habits and appetite. Have you noticed changes in either of these? Any changes can mean that things might be overwhelming your teen. 

  • Have they gone quiet or become muted? This may be a sign of autistic shutdown. In this case, specific support might be needed, depending on how serious it is.

  • They might be more sensitive to criticism, becoming more resistant to perceived demands, more easily irritated by their siblings, or distancing themselves from friends.

The best way to minimise any struggles your teen may be experiencing is to let them know you’re always available to support them. It’s also worth chatting with key staff at your teen’s school (more on this later). They can keep you up to date with your teen’s due dates and workload, as well as let you know of any signs of overwhelm they might be noticing on their end. 

Image of a mother and daughter sitting at a dining table looking at an iPad. The teen daughter looks stressed, and the mother is comforting her.

My teen has trouble managing their time, especially during exams. What are some strategies that could help them?

Time management is a tricky skill for anyone to master, but particularly for some neurodivergent teens who may perceive time differently. Here are some specific ideas: 

  • Try using a Pomodoro timer. This is an area of emerging research, but in a practical sense, the Pomodoro technique is an easy-to-implement strategy. It promotes bursts of concentration for short chunks of time in order to complete a task. Get started with Pomofocus.

  • Understand the impact of how both hyperfocus and procrastination can alter your teen’s perception of time. Spending a lot of time on one thing at the expense of other tasks, or avoiding tasks altogether, will mess with accurate time keeping and expectations. Learn about the ADHD Now vs Now Now concept of time.

  • Practising exam conditions is a simple but effective way for your teen to develop an internalised clock. It may also be helpful to teach them to look regularly at a clock or their wristwatch during exams.

Our home can be pretty busy. How can I create a study environment that will help my teen focus?

Try to find a balance between a quiet study space and a space that’s still close to the hub of the house. This will provide the amount of background noise that some teens prefer and also enable you to check in on how your teen is going. Here are some other tips:

  • Try body-doubling, a behavioural strategy that can lead to increased productivity. It’s a strategy in which a person with ADHD completes tasks with another person (the body double) present. The body double helps to keep them focused and reduce distractions. If you’re working from home, you could set up a dual study space with your teen.

  • Set up a quiet, dedicated workspace where your teen can also collaborate with their friends. This can be an effective way for them not to feel so isolated, which may make them more prone to procrastination. It may seem counterproductive, but some teens thrive when they study with each other via Facetime!

  • Use a low volume of background noise, such as a TV or radio playing softly, or even a specialised playlist for white/brown noise. This can work in the same way as body-doubling to reduce distractions. Check out apps like Calm, Finch or even Spotify for options around the type of noise that could be beneficial for your teen.

  • Protect your teen’s set study times from interruptions by other family members and manage unnecessary noise and distractions to encourage and enhance their focus. 

My teen learns differently because of their neurodiversity. What study techniques might work for them?

This is a very exciting area with a lot of scope for creativity and individuality! Here are some ideas:

  • Assistive AI has huge potential, limited only by your creativity. Explore the different apps that are available and see how they can be used to support strong study habits. Get curious about the many different ways studying can be tailored to your teen’s uniqueness and their individual needs. 

  • Chunking can help to reduce an overwhelmed cognitive load by breaking tasks down into sub-tasks, dividing study sessions into smaller blocks of time, and prioritising just a few activities at a time.

  • Speech-to-Text or Text-to-Speech can assist in creating study notes in different formats for variability. Dictation and voice-recording features are common across all platforms and devices these days. 

  • Other multisensory approaches such as colour-coding notes, drawing, watching videos or listening to podcasts may also benefit some neurodivergent teens.

It could also help to engage with your teen’s enthusiasm for a topic that’s of special interest to them. Try to make it fun by introducing a competitive twist. For example, you could create Quizlet quizzes and flashcards, or organise a ‘Slide Night’ where each family member creates a slide deck about a topic of interest to share with the group. 

a young person sitting on their bed on a laptop

Exams are coming up and my teen is really anxious. How can I support them emotionally?

Anxiety can sometimes be tricky and complicated to manage. But there are some simple things you can do to significantly reduce your teen’s anxiety.

  • Look after their basic needs: nutrition, water and sleep. This will buffer them against some of the stress. 

  • Substitute sugar- or caffeine-laden foods with healthy alternatives to reduce their stress hormones.

  • If they have to pull an all-nighter, check in on them to encourage them to take rest breaks, and to give them moral and any physical support they need. 

  • Take the pressure off them by reinforcing effort over outcome, and by switching their focus to doing their best.

  • Encourage physical activity as a way to reduce emotional overwhelm. There might be barriers to physical activity for neurodivergent individuals, but light exercise still has benefits!

  • Preventive strategies, such as building solid study habits, are things you can do well ahead of time. 

My teen has a hard time relaxing. Are there specific techniques or activities that could help them?

The most effective relaxation techniques for neurodivergent individuals are designed to soothe the sensory system, so, keeping your teen’s specific sensory needs in mind, there is a lot to choose from. 

For example, sensory soothing through fidgets or ASMR can be a great way to help your teen remain regulated and increase their ability to stay relaxed. These strategies can even be an active part of their study schedule, as they may assist with anchoring and minimising distractions

To promote a sense of routine and stability, sit down with your teen and help them to prioritise their tasks and develop a flexible study structure. Make sure to factor in rest breaks, which will help them to switch more easily from concentration and focus to relaxation and down time.

Another thing you can do is to provide opportunities for play or playfulness, which can be a great stress reliever for your teen.

Who should I talk to at my teen’s school about getting them the support they need?

Apart from subject-specific classroom teachers, there are staff members at school who can offer support to your teen. While all schools are different, here are some of the key staff:

  • The Year Advisor is the initial person to contact, but depending on your teen and their needs you may also have contact with the school counsellor/psychologist. 

  • If the issue is regarding learning, chat with the Head Teacher Learning and Support or the Learning and Support Teacher. 

  • In the classroom, the School Learning and Support Officer is often there for one-on-one support and is also the person to implement strategies required for day-to-day learning support. 

  • Some schools offer pastoral care through chaplaincy programs or Student Support Officers who are also in a Wellbeing Officer role. 

  • Deputy Principals and the Principal can also help in cases where more complex support is needed.

I’m finding it hard to support my teen. What can I do if I need extra support?

Contacting your teen’s school is a great first step in opening up channels of communication and possibly having accommodations made for your teen at school to reduce their overwhelm. In cases where the support required is non-urgent, chatting with your GP, or reconnecting with supports you already have in place, is a quick and easy place to start. 

You could ask your teen’s current support team to switch focus to exam preparation and stress prevention measures, which can help your teen to cope with and manage the demands of senior study. 

Another easy way to support yourself and your teen during exam time is to give more attention to self-care for you both, such as by going for walks, planning little trips, and factoring rest and break times into your busy schedules. 

If you have a support team of your own through NDIS, spend time ensuring that your needs are being met, too. This will increase your self-confidence and put you in a good headspace to meet your teen’s needs during this stressful period. Plus, there’s no reason why you can’t try out some of the strategies yourself for sensory relief, time management and stress reduction!

For specific support and specialised information, places such as the Autism Advisory and Support Service and Amaze can help to manage your expectations during exam time. They offer specific parenting support, particularly if you’re neurodivergent yourself. 

For urgent, acute support, you could contact:

I hope the above information gives you some new ideas and practical strategies for supporting your neurodivergent teen and making the experience of these final exams a little less stressful for both of you, while also providing an opportunity to reflect on how far you have both come already.