Youth with autism gravitate toward STEM majors in college — if they get there

16 Nov

Recent research has shown that there is a lack of support for the transition from school to adulthood for autistics in the U.S.. That research came from one of the researchers I admire most: Prof. Paul Shattuck of Washington University in St. Louis. Prof. Shattuck’s team has a new paper out with : Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Participation Among College Students with an Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Here is the abstract:

Little research has examined the popular belief that individuals with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are more likely than the general population to gravitate toward science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. This study analyzed data from the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2, a nationally representative sample of students with an ASD in special education. Findings suggest that students with an ASD had the highest STEM participation rates although their college enrollment rate was the third lowest among 11 disability categories and students in the general population. Disproportionate postsecondary enrollment and STEM participation by gender, family income, and mental functioning skills were found for young adults with an ASD. Educational policy implications are discussed.

The press release can be found at Youth with autism gravitate toward STEM majors in college — if they get there, but here are a few quotes:

It’s a popularly held belief that individuals with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) gravitate toward STEM majors in college (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

A new study, co-authored by Paul Shattuck, PhD, assistant professor at the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis, confirms that view yet finds that young adults with an ASD also have one of the lowest overall college enrollment rates.


The study found that 34.3 percent of students with an ASD gravitated toward STEM majors. That’s not only higher than their peers in all 10 other disability categories, but also higher than the 22.8 percent of students in the general population who declared a STEM major in college. Science (12.1 percent) and computer science (16.2 percent) were the fields most likely to be chosen by students with an ASD.

Prof. Shattuck put the need for attention to the needs of autistic adults much better than I:

“More and more children are being identified as having autism,” Shattuck says, “children who grow up to be adults. With the majority of a typical lifespan spent in adulthood, that phase of life is the one we know least about when it comes to autism spectrum disorders.

“This study is the latest addition to a growing body of evidence we are building here at the Brown School about the needs, strengths and challenges facing this vulnerable population,” Shattuck says.

While for many of us parents, college is not really in the likely future for our autistic children. The basic theme is still the same: “With the majority of a typical lifespan spent in adulthood, that phase of life is the one we know least about when it comes to autism spectrum disorders”

By Matt Carey

4 Responses to “Youth with autism gravitate toward STEM majors in college — if they get there”

  1. The A-Word November 16, 2012 at 16:54 #

    College is definitely a standing goal for a parent with a child on the spectrum. In our dealings with the A-Word and working with the family that we are following that has a child on the spectrum, I can see how difficult it will be for them to make it there. But also see how very possible it is.

  2. Lara Lohne November 18, 2012 at 19:09 #

    It’s research like this that shows just how little we know, really, about ASD, and also how damaging the idea that vaccines are a contributing cause to ASD really has been.

    So much focus has been toward children with ASD, diagnosing it and finding the cause/causes and/or treatment/cure, that we have forgotten there are a great many adults that also have autism. I believe a major contributing factor to that forgetfulness has to do with Jenny McCarthy saying on national television some years ago, that there aren’t any autistic adults, because she had never met one. That statement alone was grossly unjust and misguided (has she never seen the movie Rain Man, based on an actual person?)

    I had met someone with autism, back before I was married and began having my own children and never dreamed I would be raising a child with autism. He was a close friend of mine and after several months had confided in me and my fiance at the time that he was autistic and attempted to explain why he spent so much time alone. He had said that once he learned he had autism, he began reading all the books he could find about it so he could learn more about it. And then told us one thing that looking back in retrospect, makes my heart ache for him. He said that in learning about autism, the characteristics of it and what distinguishes an autistic from a ‘normal person’ (that was the actual phrase he used) allowed him to control his more prominent autistic behaviors so he could appear normal. He believed he was for the most part cured, yet he still found social situations difficult, loud noises caused him anxiety and all of those classic things that can lead to an autistic having a meltdown or needing ‘time out’ to self regulate. Granted this was back in 1989 when we learned all this about him. I can’t imagine there was nearly half the information on ASD and autism available then as there is now. He was also raised during the time when autism was blamed on bad parenting. He had enrolled himself part time in the local community college, but he also worked part time and spent many hours at the gym (I believe working out was his version of stimming.)

    The idea though, that autistic adults didn’t exist simply because an individual had not met one was ridiculous. I’ve not actually seen a live platypus, but I still believe they exist. That statement alone did far more damage then I think many people acknowledge. I would love for my son to be able to attend college. That is obviously a long way off for him since he only just started kindergarten this year. I have a friend with a son who has autism who turned 18 in June. He is still working toward his high school graduation, but he does want to be independent. He isn’t aware that being independent means far more then just living in his own place. It also means holding down a job that pays sufficiently for him to pay rent on his place, pay his bills, allow him to buy food and the need to prepare that food. While many people might be offended at the idea of teaching ‘life skills’ to an adolescent with autism who is approaching adulthood, I don’t really see the harm in that. Granted they should also be encouraged to seek out a profession other then sweeping floors and cleaning toilets, but teaching them how to cook food, purchase food, balance a check book, launder their own clothes, etc. shouldn’t be considered a bad thing (heck some NT people could use training or education in those areas also.) The supports that he had (still has to a degree while he’s still in high school) will diminish significantly once he has graduated. He is high functioning but has outbursts and meltdowns still and without the supports for him after he is officially out of high school and an adult, he may very well end up turning violent at the wrong time, in the wrong situation and end up going to jail. His mother is concerned for him, but doesn’t know what to do to help him, simply because there is only so much she can do, and also because, now that he’s 18, he’s trying to act more independent. She tries to give him that space and freedom, but at the same time hurts when she sees him struggle with certain things, and out of frustration he melts down. This is an example of an individual that may need life long support, just because he hasn’t really ever learned how to self regulate, when he was a child, the age of my son, they didn’t have the same supports in place that my son gets, so he was left at a bit of a disadvantage. And I’m sure there are many autistic adults in the same situation he is in.

    In order for those that make policy to know what it is that the growing population of adults with an ASD diagnosis need, they will first need to learn to listen to those same adults. They are out there and they want their voices heard, and they should be heard, but the first step in them being heard is to undo the damage done by those who have claimed autistic adults don’t exist.

    P.S. Sorry if this is rambling…

  3. Saraquill November 18, 2012 at 22:56 #

    So this would make me and some of my graduate school classmates anomalies. We were all in the same social science field, not STEM at all.

  4. Idebenone November 19, 2012 at 10:01 #

    These findings are a first step in understanding the factors that predict successful college enrollment and STEM participation for young adults with ASDs. Further studies will continue to bridge the gap and help us understand how to increase graduation rates and job success. We are continuing to analyze the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS2) , a 10-year SRI-led study of the experiences of youth with disabilities, to help understand the environments that best support the enrollment and completion of STEM degrees among college students with ASDs.

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