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Students with Autism Gravitate Toward STEM Majors

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Invited Guest Post by Marissa Fessenden (@marisfessenden)

U.S. business and policy leaders have made it a priority to increase the number of students pursuing degrees in science, technology, engineering and math, collectively known as STEM. But one source of STEM talent is often overlooked: young people with autism spectrum disorders. A study published late last year in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders found that students with autism choose majors in science, technology, engineering and math at higher rates than students in the general population. Yet students with autism enter college at far lower rates. The authors say the results highlight the need to encourage students with autism to pursue a post-secondary education and that doing so may strengthen participation in the STEM fields.

The only previous study to directly examine the connection between autism spectrum disorders and STEM majors was limited to a single university in the U.K. That paper, co-authored by Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the Autism Research Center at the University of Cambridge, found a link between autism and mathematical talent. The new study, led by researchers at the independent research institute SRI International, based in Menlo Park, CA, examined 11,000 students across the country and found that more young adults with an autism spectrum disorder choose STEM majors than their peers in the general population (34.31 vs. 22.8 percent) as well as their peers in 10 other disability groups (which included visual disabilities, intellectual disabilities, speech and language impairment and others). Students with autism, however, were unlikely to enroll in college at all—their rate of enrollment was the third lowest of all disability categories.

One theory proposes that people with autism are above average on systemizing, which includes analysis and understanding of rule-based systems, and below average on empathizing, which refers to emotional and social thinking, says Xin Wei, a senior research analyst at the Center for Education and Human Services at SRI International and the study’s lead author. ”It may be that people with autism naturally think like scientists,” says Baron-Cohen. “They look for patterns, and, in science, you are always looking for patterns that you hope reflect a natural law.” He says Wei and her colleagues findings are not surprising—they jibe with Baron-Cohen’s own work. But he says he is worried that students with autism are underrepresented at universities.

Further research could point to strategies to boost enrollment among students with autism and thus STEM majors, says Julie Taylor, an assistant professor of pediatrics and investigator at the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Research on Education and Human Development. There are very few strategies that are commonly used, although more colleges are creating dedicated programs. Some strategies include giving students with autism a private room, without roommates, or providing guidance with organization and prioritizing tasks.

Baron-Cohen works with the disabilities resource center at the University of Cambridge and says it encourages parents of children with autism interested in enrolling to make contact with the university early—when they are 15 or 16 years old. Prospective students can visit the university and see the rooms where they will be interviewing during the application process. Students can familiarize themselves with lights and background noise—individuals with autism are often sensitive to sensory simulation—to give them a better shot for admission.

Wei and her colleagues are working on a series of papers that suggest actions to help students with autism enroll in post secondary education. The goal is to figure out what high schools can do to better prepare students with autism for college and beyond. The team is investigating high school factors linked to STEM participation—which classes best prepare students and how test performance is related to STEM enrollment, for example.

Science education is key to remaining competitive in a global economy, Wei says and adds, “it becomes imperative to discover previously untapped sources of STEM talent.” Students with autism could be one such source.

As our understanding of autism deepens, it may be necessary to change the way we think about the disorder, says Baron-Cohen. “We should think of it as a different way of thinking,” he says. “These individuals are attracted less to people and emotions but more to factual patterns. We should be focusing on the positive aspects of autism as well.”

IMAGE CREDIT: clemsonunivlibrary via flickr




About the Author: Anna Kuchment is a Contributing Editor at Scientific American and a staff science writer at The Dallas Morning News. She was previously a reporter, writer and editor with Newsweek magazine. She is also author of “The Forgotten Cure,” about bacteriophage viruses and their potential as weapons against antibiotic resistance. Follow on Twitter @akuchment.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. karenalcott 7:25 pm 02/1/2013

    It’s about time we accepted that there are different types of intelligence and different strategies for applying them. If what you need to get safely home is someone who can read their fellow man like a book and get him on their side, then you had better not be counting on a math wiz. If you are lost in the middle of the great north woods, your chances are not good if no one in your party has an innate sense of location and direction. And anyone who has looked at neurological studies of athletes, must know a dumb jock would never be a talented athlete because that requires a special type of intelligence. I think we need to use everything we have and stop trying to pigeonhole our kids. Expose them to a little of everything and be ready to encourage whatever talents and interests they discover.

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  2. 2. elderlybloke 8:31 pm 02/1/2013

    As one who spent most of his working life in Engineering I now suspect I am autist / have autism.

    For most of my life this Autism/Autistic stuff and other malfunctioning problems hadn’t been invented.
    I would have worried a lot, just like the poor bloody current lot of kids, workers and parents.

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  3. 3. jcfried 1:12 am 02/2/2013

    I am on the ASD spectrum and i had far worse AD/HD. I graduated with a degree in Physics and did some graduate work in coherent optics before realizing i just didn’t have the temperament for academics. My career included geophysics and software engineering, both of which i stumbled into quite by accident because i simply couldn’t possibly plan a career. While my career was to some degree impeded by ASD, and to a greater degree the AD/HD, because i had very little empathy, it was also propelled by both in that i could focus on complex technical problems for endless hours. I am grateful that i was diagnosed late in life because an early diagnosis might have limited my expectations based on the assumption that all jobs need good social skills. I am saddened that i was diagnosed late in life because only now, after considerable help from a good biofeedback specialist followed by 5 years of meditation, i am able to connect on a social level and i know what i missed. Knowing that the software i helped develop and some of the science on which i participated are still around really doesn’t compensate for the social life i missed. So, to those on the spectrum who are starting out, i suggest you find ways to truly develop your social skills, not just learn a set of social tricks, so that you are more than just an intellect. Biofeedback and good, non-religious, meditation techniques really help because they connect mind and body. Learn to experience before you think and the world will open for you in ways that will continue to amaze you even more than your technical skills.

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  4. 4. Jason7070 10:41 am 02/2/2013

    You mean to tell me, that people with problems with social interation dont flock to, say, jobs involving managing people or administrating businesses? Who’d have thunk…

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  5. 5. kevinjearly 1:37 pm 02/2/2013

    From my perspective, its articles like this one that contributes to the common misunderstandings that many people have about this neurological disorder.

    For example, what does the author do with the fact that 50% of students with autism are non-verbal and will likely remain functionally without verbal language for their entire lives? Please don’t overlook the fact that autism (better termed Autism Spectrum Disorder) is a SPECTRUM disorder. The degree and nature of the impact of ASD varies greatly from one end of the continuum to the other.

    And yet here, the author paints the entire population of people with ASD with the same brush, as though they might all be college bound, if not for societal misunderstandings, misconceptions about the concept of “intelligence,” or or other conventional road blocks (“lights” in the testing room! Yes, unusual responses to sensory input is a hallmark characteristic, but far from the only explanation for differences in performance — anxiety is as likely a contributor here, especially with students on the high end of the continuum).

    Many students with ASD will not get high school diplomas, not even modified ones. And a significant population will always need support with activities of daily living. I’m not saying that the author doesn’t care about their plight; what I’m saying is that she lost this population by conflating them with the population she’s speaking of here: highly verbal, highly intelligent students with ASD (to simplify how we might characterize folks on the other end of the spectrum).

    I’m afraid that articles like this don’t help improve the public’s understanding of the disorder, but rather simplify the framework for conceptualizing it. To say that students with autism are heterogeneous may sound cliche, but it is also true in ways that matter.

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  6. 6. pinetree 3:41 pm 02/2/2013

    Can a tutor the autistic in the blue shirt on the far left? Way to draw attention to autism in science.

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  7. 7. billw1628 4:41 pm 02/2/2013

    I am one who is breaking the trend. Yes, my undergraduate degree is in Statistics. However, my masters and soon-to-be doctorate degree will be in Occupational Therapy. In fact, I might be making some Occupational Therapy History in the process by possibly being the first person with autism in the world to get a doctorate degree of any kind in Occupational Therapy this summer. So, if an individual with autism doesn’t fit the STEM fields, don’t despair. It will just take hard work, determination, and support to get to where he/she wants to be.

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  8. 8. jtdwyer 5:02 pm 02/2/2013

    kevinjearly – Very well put. Part of the problem is that Autism Spectrum Disorder is such a broad spectrum disorder that it’s very difficult for society to make convenient generalizations about the condition.

    This situation was significantly compounded by the inclusion of those suffering with Asperger Syndrome in the ASD, whose symptoms are quite similar to those of High Functioning Autism except they do not generally suffer from marked linguistic and cognitive development issues – quite a distinction!

    Grouping such wide ranging conditions, that include severe disfunction as well as many gifted individuals, into a single bucket effectively insures that many will not receive appropriate treatment by the medical industry or society in general.

    In some cases this may be less effective than those with Asperger’s received prior to the 1990s, when it was described. Back in the old days, Asperger’s sufferers just had to get along as best they could by themselves…

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  9. 9. bradjohnson01 5:30 pm 02/2/2013

    I missed reading any mention of James Watson’s work on this subject. He recounts the observation that the gifted mathematician or engineer is often the person standing in the corner at social gatherings. I believe his work at Cold Harbor Springs Labs has focused on possible links between autism and the brain types of parents. He finds a disproportional chance for parents of an autistic child to have the same “male” brain type. I do not pretend to articulate well his findings, but his work on this subject certainly is not new. Is there a reason his thoughts are not part of this interesting discussion?

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  10. 10. Sacrieur 4:38 pm 02/3/2013

    I fall into that category, being an aspie who wishes to pursue STEM and philosophy.

    It’s hard to get an accurate diagnosis for ASD unless the symptoms are so bad the person is probably not ever going to leave their room.

    Those people with more mild versions and especially aspies have been plagued with being slapped with an obviously incorrect ADHD/ADD diagnosis and have had medication shoved down our throats.

    For all of the understanding and support the world pretends to offer it really doesn’t offer all that much. Untapped potential? Sure, but realize people, especially in the workplace, have a long way to go before they actually grasp what’s going on in our heads.

    College doesn’t even sound all that appealing. Okay sure I get to read textbooks (which I do anyway for far less money), I have to go through some lame interview process to get there (Oh c’mon, psychologists know about the halo effect and stuff, this is clearly a practice that gives extroverts an unfair advantage), and I have to be stuck in some little shoebox of a room with another person (probably the worst bit).

    All so I can then go out and (most likely) be forced to pretend like I’m just a really smart normal person so I can get hired by some company who wants all of my gifts but none of the eccentricities that come along with it.

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  11. 11. YellowBirch 8:23 pm 02/3/2013

    If you want to use our talents, you’ll have to start education earlier than college, earlier than secondary school, you’ll need to start in primary school. You won’t succeed by cramming social skills down the throats of those on the spectrum, nor will you do it by trying to force NTs to totally understand ASDs. The answer is education for all. While there will always be some who just plain won’t get it, most people can be taught to accept neurodiversity and to accept each other.

    If you want us to succeed, you need to build up confidence and not bully or mock us. We will use our strengths if encouraged and supported, just like anybody else. (Won’t happen tho’ – too many trolls.)

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  12. 12. Will Wilkin 9:21 pm 02/3/2013

    Its funny but I have the opposite reaction than kevinjearly and jtdwyer. Not to say you are wrong but to say that is not at all universal. Before I read your comments, as I was reading the article itself, I was thinking “drop the word ‘disorder’,” and then reading jtdwyer I was thinking “suffer? Not at all!” Let me explain.

    I do not think autism is something that necessarily needs to be “recovered from.” That is because EVERY person has a unique set of traits and skills and mental styles, and this diversity has been an essential part of our species rising out of animal existence through division of labor and accumulation of culture and technology. Much human progress has come from odd minds, from novel approaches to old problems. This can overlap with genius, which, to me, is the ability to have a truly original idea that works.

    That said, of course there are autistic disabilities that must be overcome if one is to find success in our world, especially communication disabilities. And the key to that is early diagnosis and intensive one-on-one and small group specialized education from as young an age as possible. The more early intensive intervention and the more competent and caring ongoing support, the more likely and earlier can a child be mainstreamed in regular classrooms, which offers the best hope for truly overcoming the the disabilities in communication and social interaction that threaten to hold them back from becoming successful adults.

    I would never want my son’s autism to not have happened. He still shows traits but many of them seem to me strengths rather than weaknesses. He is such a talented musician and composer, he has such a strong memory and such a great attention span. I give much credit to Dr. Fein’s Early Intervention program at UCONN for giving us the early diagnosis and strong recommendations for intervention that we used to get lots of one-on-one and other special services in the pre-school years, and still in 7th grade minimal special support in the regular classroom. The early years were crying years, mostly worry and anxiety about his future after I’m gone, but now I already know he will exceed me, he already has in some ways, and I also know he will always have a special mind that I love and admire and learn from, and that will benefit society.

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  13. 13. jtdwyer 10:12 pm 02/3/2013

    Will Wilkin – I agree with your sentiments – I was just using standard terminology. Being immediately recognized as different by peers makes (especially childhood) socialization difficult, but those differences can also infer significant advantages…

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  14. 14. Sacrieur 10:26 pm 02/3/2013

    I never found my childhood, despite being bullied, as particularly traumatic. I was more interested in building things with sticks, wrapped up in my own little world, than reflecting about the rocks that would occasionally be thrown at me.

    But at the heart of it we are very different, we have unique personalities like any other person. I have an autistic friend (as much of a friend as a moderate autist could be) who was quite a bit bothered by his bullies.

    We’re different, but also the same. But I suppose its the alien bits that get people all mixed up. They capitalize on it and forget we’re people too.

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  15. 15. DanSchultz 3:41 am 02/7/2013

    Autism used to be a serious mental condition that kept its victims from having any interaction with the outside world at all. Now any shy person who prefers to concentrate on serious intellectual pursuits rather than making inane smalltalk and following meaningless trends in popular culture is labeled “autistic”. We used to just call these people “nerds” and laugh about their inability to get dates until we needed one to fix our computer.

    Even worse is when these kids are fed medication to correct their unapproved preferences. If a young Albert Einstein or Thomas Edison were enrolled in a modern elementary school, they would no doubt be medicated to help them pay attention to their inane school lessons and abandon any thoughts that might threaten to really change the world.

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  16. 16. The Ethical Skeptic 12:32 am 02/15/2013

    I have two children who are diagnosed with ASD. They are dramatically different in their abilities and focus approaches. I pray that STEM disciplines would be something they could play well inside of for a career, but sadly this is simply not the case for most ASD victims. We are thinking one specific manifestation of Autism in that context; which is wonderful and I applaud this article in that sense. So keep up the great thinking! But I have hired specialized curricula to aid my children where classic education has failed them miserably. These specialized approaches have worked thankfully. Unfortunately these very same specialized approaches fall victim to celebrity and fake SSkeptic activism and attacks. Fake SSkeptics for some reason have chosen the task of deflecting science’s attention away from ASD’s as some sort of worthy and noble cause on their part.

    ASD activists, in the dilettante conjecture of SSkeptics, work on a ‘belief system’ or are part of the anti-vaccination fringe, when nothing could be further from the truth. We need to cut these people’s bullcrap, and get real scientists involved.

    Unfortunately Social Skeptics, pretending to represent science, are in the process now of attacking those who are pressing for ASD research, and attacking those sounding the alarm that there is a problem – a very stark problem driven by a contributory and recent factor in our endemic environment. I do not claim to know what that problem is – But I am actively involved in demanding that the science be done. This work is being blocked by Celebrity SSkeptics faking like they are representing critical thinking and science. Making observations, establishing plurality of argument, developing candidate contributors via hypothesis, even though they may turn out to be wrong by a falsification hierarchy, is HOW science works. To a SSkeptic however, science involves personal pontification, denial, being photographed in front of bookshelves, and explaining why the science does NOT have to be done – as their brilliance makes it a total waste of time.

    The statistics are not driven simply by the expansion in the definition of what constitutes Autism. This worn out pseudo-scientific excuse, designed to deflect science’s attention away from protected institutions is applied to every single skyrocketing disorder affecting our American society. Diabetes, hypo-endocrine disorders, autoimmune disorders, allergies and sensitivities, heart disease related progressions, skin expressive disorders, brain and cognitive impacts are ALL skyrocketing in a 2:1 to 20:1 30-year ratio.

    I love this article, but let’s not make one facet advantage of Autism provide a new one-liner excuse for the Science Fakers. Let’s keep on the science, and ignore the Social Skeptics until we figure out what has lit off this impact on our American children. It is of extraordinary and strategic importance. We do not have time to waste on Social Skeptic propaganda with this.

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  17. 17. Devide 7:11 am 10/13/2014

    I thought every 2nd person in autism and peoples can’t understand properly what is it, so that’s why peoples learn about it from – Assignment help to understand it.

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  18. 18. Suzysmith01 7:39 am 01/23/2015

    yes!! people with autism are above average on systemizing, which includes analysis and understanding of rule based systems. But, major challenge would be to enroll new students in this session.

    essay writing service

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  19. 19. martingreen 8:51 am 01/29/2015

    Students with autism shouldn’t be overlooked and should get a chance to show their best in STEM fields! Hope that this statisctics data will be spread among people and institutions who ignore the fact of existing the link between autism and mathematical talent.

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  20. 20. markkwhite 4:53 am 03/28/2015

    This is an very informative website. Must visit this site . Online Electronic Store.

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  21. 21. Skweeb 8:24 pm 03/30/2015

    This is really a nice and informative, containing all information and also has a great impact on the new technology.

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