Posted by: E (The Third Glance) | September 19, 2012

Accommodations in education

A friend and I were talking recently, about test taking accommodations and other things one can get at university when one has a disability. I know many people who benefited greatly from accommodations – a friend of mine is dyslexic, and having time and a half on exams gave her time to actually process the words on the paper and write out her answers. She was a political science major, and their exams involve tons of writing. When you’re dyslexic, writing requires a lot more motor and brain planning than it does for other people. The extra time helped to let her brain get on a level playing field with everyone else’s.

I love the idea of accommodations. Simple things that can help to allow very intelligent people to actually succeed in an environment which is designed to make success nearly impossible for them. Not everyone’s brain works exactly the same way, and shouldn’t be expected to. Despite the fact that I didn’t use any official Student with Disabilities accommodations during my formal education, I still managed to create my own that helped me to function, focus, and succeed with my academic work. You see, I never felt the desire for accommodations – I’m an incredibly fast test-taker. The only exam I didn’t finish on time was one in which I was the only student to finish more than 60% of the exam. (I finished about 90% of it). My brain, in exam mode, goes into hyperdrive, and I hyperfocus and think very quickly. Extra time wouldn’t have helped me. Being in a separate room, away from the insanity of people, with a real sized desk instead of the little lecture hall “desks” that barely hold a piece of paper would have, but since I was doing extremely well academically, I didn’t see any reason to pursue it. (and besides, the disabilities office was so incredibly awful and full of red tape, that the mere idea of going to request any sort of accommodations was more stressful than just dealing with the issues as they came. Talk about inaccessibility! But that’s a different story.) That was MY decision, and it worked for ME.

I hold absolutely nothing against those students who use the accommodations they’re entitled to. When I was a TA and a grader, I would nearly always volunteer to proctor the extra time exams. As a grader, this had the added benefit of more hours, but the TA job was stipend-based. I did it for a number of reasons. One, because my friends who have used accommodations including extra time, have told me that often their exam proctors are really nasty and impatient, and make a more hostile environment where they feel rushed and it isn’t actually helpful. I didn’t want to create that kind of an exam environment. Plus, the extra time rooms are always smaller than the big lecture halls. There’s only a few students. When we’re lucky, there’s no fluorescent lights hissing. And I have an awesome basically uninterrupted extra-long quiet work period. Yes, I keep an eye on the 2-4 students in the room, to make sure they’re not cheating, as is required by the university, but really, most students don’t cheat. And while I’ve been trained to look for it by the paranoid university, I am always happy to just sit and have us all work together. I’ve had students come up to me after exams and thank me for being such a great proctor, because I treated them with respect and didn’t grumble about needing the extra time or space. And in truth, it never bothered me. I think every student deserves the respect and dignity to work through their coursework, exams, and everything else, at the pace they need to do a good job. So I try to be the person proctoring the extra time exams.

So despite not ever using more official accommodations, I’m will say that discovering my autism diagnosis and the self-awareness that came with it, really helped me in other ways. It helped me to figure out exactly what I could do in various situations, in order to help myself relax and survive, if not succeed. And after that long ramble above, I wanted to share a few of the things I did for myself in order to succeed in classroom settings.

I always sit in the same place in the classroom. In big lecture halls, it’s usually center section, left hand side, 3rd seat up from the front, in the aisle. This does a number of things. First, it lets me get used to the sounds of the lecture hall. I echo-orient – my body figures out what direction things are by sound, not by sight. Block off my ears, and I get vertigo and can’t figure out which way is up. If I sit in the same place every time, I don’t have to re-orient myself at the beginning of each lecture, and I can pay attention to the lecture, not be distracted by my surroundings.

Being on an aisle means that I only have one person invading my personal space, which is supremely helpful in terms of concentration and functionality. It also means I can get up and run to the bathroom or out of the classroom if I get overwhelmed and need to leave for some reason, without disturbing other students. While I rarely used the leave technique, having the option (and using it on occasion) was invaluable.

Although I’m not left-handed all the time, I do often write left-handed and prefer left-handed desks. I know that there is a dearth of them in lecture halls, and that actual left-handed people need them, but please understand that my need is similar, even if I’m writing right-handed that day. I have wrist problems stemming from years of gymnastics, and often need to switch which hand I’m writing with. While I can write right-handed on a lefty desk, the same can’t be said for writing left-handed on a righty desk. (I’m lefty dominant, but was trained to write righty, and didn’t learn lefty until late middle school. So while I am able to write lefty, and it’s neater than righty, it’s a little more awkward)

I color-coordinated my notebooks and folders, and had a separate one for each subject. Yes, it meant my backpack was huge. But it also meant I didn’t lose things and didn’t run out of things and always knew where my notes were. Peace of mind, folks!

As I mentioned above, I really don’t need extra time on exams. I take tests very quickly, and my brain turns on HIGH for exams. Usually I do pretty darn well too. Yes, I might make one or two mistakes on an exam where I could have gotten a 100%, but at the same time, a 97% is pretty awesome, too. But that doesn’t mean exams weren’t something I worried about. I have a number of little things I did to help me function.

-Always got to an exam early if possible. This meant that I could go into the room and secure my spot from lecture.

-I used the same mechanical pencil. Not due to superstitions, but because I could stim with it and since I was already comfortable with the pencil, I didn’t have to get used to it, too. (I had several replacements in various locations if there was a major problem)

-I would always bring a stim toy in my pocket. I have a couple little stuffed animals that fit nicely in my fleece pockets – they made my life much happier, and kept me calm during exams.

-I would always wear the same variety of clothes on exam day. My usual jeans, t-shirt, fleece jacket. And I would bring a water bottle.

And for me, the big one:

-My university had a lot of worries about cheating, and so many professors adopted a “you must write in pen” policy, if you wanted the opportunity for a re-grade. There were even professors who required pens only, no exceptions. I can’t write in pen. I need to be able to erase, as often my brain out-thinks my hand, and what I wrote only makes sense if you have the other 8 words in my brain, and most of the letters in the words that are down on the paper. I can’t tell you how many times I combined 4 words into one 6 letter mess when writing. I need to be able to erase that and rewrite it. Plus, my atrocious handwriting needs pencil to be remotely legible – pen is a nightmare. So I always composed an email to the professors who announced their pen policies at the beginning of the course, discussing my difficulties with pens and asking if I could use pencil on the exam. Most of them agreed (though some made me give up the re-grade option). The ones who didn’t, I had a special treat for them – a friend of mine worked at an office supply store that sold really nice erasable pens that actually worked, and so he would give me one if I needed it. I suppose that if I had official accommodations, I could’ve gotten the professors who were too rigid to allow me the use of pencil, but at some point, I had to pick my battles. And one of them, after grading my first exam, and seeing how much worse it was than my pencil homework, relented and let me use pencil. I got an A in his class, and he apologized to me after the first exam and agreed that I wasn’t being unreasonable.

And so there you have it, the accommodations I created for myself to succeed in my undergrad education. These are very specific to me, and I’m sure I’m neglecting something at this point, but I just wanted to share the list. Just because I didn’t use “official” accommodations, doesn’t mean that I didn’t benefit from the things I did for myself. I probably would’ve benefited even more if I were able to take exams in a separate room with a real-sized desk and non-buzzing lights and fewer people around. But in the end, it didn’t really matter for me. I still survived, did well, and got into grad school where I wanted to be to do the research I am so excited to be doing.

What are some accommodations that have helped you to achieve success in education? What things haven’t worked? I would love to get a really nice list together on this, that could serve as a resource for those of us who “think differently”. Also, you don’t have to be autistic to participate! Just share some little tips, tricks, and accommodations you use to help manage your brain in a situation that really isn’t meant for it. 🙂



  1. I really struggled with exams. I would often just get so overwhelmed that I couldn’t focus on the questions. I managed to do well enough in the exams that when combined with my coursework I still got good grades and got into uni and then graduated with hons. It makes me sad to think that coursework is being withdrawn from many courses in favour of exams at the behest of the UK government, I know I would not have found this easy.

    The things which helped me most:
    1. Make sure you have a clear pencil case that can be taken into the exam hall. You can prevent the “have I got everything?” thoughts/worrying this way.
    2. Find a way to stim in the exam hall which is not distracting to others. Muscle tensing and finger tapping (tapping my thumb to each finger in turn) work for me.
    3. Don’t get sucked in to the “If the question looks hard, move on and come back” school of thought. Make a genuine attempt to answer a question before moving on. If you skip them all because you decide they are too hard, I can promise you they don’t get any easier on the second pass, especially when your anxiety levels have climbed.

  2. I found out about my AS too late into my coursework to take advantage of official accomodations but I can only think of one instance when I would have asked for them – more time on exams for a graduate level econ course. I’m normally a fast test taker too, but that class required a lot of graphing to illustrate essay answers and I struggled to shift back and forth quickly enough to finish the exams well. I got through them but my grades suffered because of the time constraint.

    A few informal things that I found helpful:
    1. Sit in the back of the class, preferably the back corner, so no one was behind me and only one person was next to me. Being in back also helped me avoid having to make too much eye contact with professors, which I find uncomfortable and distracting.
    2. Write down everything that instructors wrote on the board, word for word. I have trouble taking good, complete notes from lectures but discovered that most professors write all of the key points on the board.
    3. Rework all of the problems (math) or review all of my answers on exams. I finish quickly but tend to misread questions so carefully verifying my answers helped me not to lose points on simple mistakes.

  3. I don’t have any problem with accommodations either. I’m a teacher, and I’ve found that most students know why they need the extra time (or even noise reducers for students who must read aloud). I am usually the test administrator for extended time testing at my school. I enjoy helping them test in a stress-free environment.

  4. Never had anything formal, but things I have done:
    1) Sit in the back so I can stim.
    2) Go barefoot whenever legally possible (Sensory issue related, and yes I have taken final exams barefoot.)
    3) Draw in class.
    4) Make chainmail in class. (armor, not annoying letters)
    5) Knit in class.
    6) Somehow managed to convince my teachers to be OK with 3-6? Yes, really.
    7) In India, wound up admitting that I am autistic and I got what might be more than the ADA would have made the teacher do, all informally and without any paperwork.

    Anyways, more evidence that I am you, because I was always the first done with tests too. Turned in a 90-minute final at the 15-minute mark and got an A on it once…

  5. For people who need to erase — but are required to write in pen at school or work — I recommend a high-quality, low-cost erasable all-point called the Pilot Frixion:

    • Hey, those are the pens I used! Thanks for the link… I ought to invest in a few myself… 🙂

  6. My son has dysgraphia, and is allowed to circle answers in a test booklet, and someone else fills out the little bubbles on the paper. He also can type instead of write.

    • Thanks for sharing! Typing instead of writing is definitely something I think I would’ve benefited from. My handwriting is horrific, and I once spent 4 hours on a standardized test (which had unlimited time) copying over my 5 paragraph essay into legible handwriting. 4 HOURS! And it STILL wasn’t very readable…

  7. Here are a few that I use.

    1. I bring a pack of gum or two whenever I take major tests whenever possible. I do that because I wanted to be in a nice rhythm when I take a test. (I was unable to do that for my licensing exam, though, but I still pass it anyway).

    2. I sit down during presentations (on top of taking anti-anxiety medications). It seemed odd considering everyone else is doing that standing up and/or even moving around. But, I somehow found that reduces my anxiety. I am very fortunate that I am in the OT department… because I just needed to explain that this works for me and they let me do it without any questions.

    3. I purposely put color pencils and highlighters in my pencil box. On written exams, sometimes I will use a different color to highlight each important fact related to the problem. Also, since sometimes the questions are multiple choice, I purposely do it in such a way that I can only see one problem at a time.

    4. I wouldn’t call this an accommodation- but I always write “NEVER give up! NEVER lose faith! NEVER lose hope! BELIEVE” on every page of my exam paper.

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