Convention wisdom is right: Autistic students like science, math

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Many students with autism spectrum disorder don't make it to college. But when they do go, they tend to choose majors in STEM fields. | FILE PHOTOS

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, "STEM Participation Among College Students with an Autism Spectrum Disorder,"
(http://www.springerlink.com/content/e4x481824207 887 5/) was published online Nov. 1 in the Journal of
Autism and Developmental Disorders.

"STEM careers are touted as being important for increasing both national economic competitiveness and
individual career earning power," Shattuck says. "If popular stereotypes are accurate and college-bound
youth with autism gravitate toward STEM majors, then this has the potential to be a silver lining story for
a group where gloomy predictions about outcomes in adulthood are more the norm."

The study provides the first national picture of college enrollment and STEM participation for young adults with an ASD, compared with 10 other disability categories, including learning disabilities; speech/language impairment; intellectual disabilities; emotional disturbances; hearing impairment; visual impairment; orthopedic impairment; other health impairment; traumatic brain injury; and multiple disabilities.

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.

But the study also learned that young adults with ASD have one of the lowest overall college enrollment rates when compared with students in other disability categories. Factors such as gender, family income and ability to carry on a conversation played a role in whether or not the individual with ASD attended college.
"Clearly, only a subset of youth with autism will head to college after high school," Shattuck says. "A low family income puts these young people at a disadvantage even if they are cognitively capable. We need to get better at connecting students with financial aid to help them achieve their highest potential and be contributing members of society."

The study says the tide may be turning. Advances in early identification and treatment of ASDs are likely to increase college enrollment rates, and with it increased participation in STEM majors.

"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.

This study was funded by the National Science Foundation; Autism Speaks; the National Institute of Mental Health; and the November 15, 2012
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, “STEM Participation Among College Students with an Autism Spectrum Disorder,”
(http://www.springerlink.com/content/e4x481824207 887 5/) was published online Nov. 1 in the Journal of
Autism and Developmental Disorders.
“STEM careers are touted as being important for increasing both national economic competitiveness and
individual career earning power,” Shattuck says. “If popular stereotypes are accurate and college-bound
youth with autism gravitate toward STEM majors, then this has the potential to be a silver lining story for
a group where gloomy predictions about outcomes in adulthood are more the norm.”
The study provides the first national picture of college enrollment and STEM participation for young adults with an ASD,
compared with 10 other disability categories, including learning disabilities; speech/language impairment; intellectual
disabilities; emotional disturbances; hearing impairment; visual impairment; orthopedic impairment; other health impairment;
traumatic brain injury; and multiple disabilities.
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.
But the study also learned that young adults with ASD have one of the lowest overall college enrollment rates when compared
with students in other disability categories. Factors such as gender, family income and ability to carry on a conversation played
a role in whether or not the individual with ASD attended college.
“Clearly, only a subset of youth with autism will head to college after high school,” Shattuck says. “A low family income puts
these young people at a disadvantage even if they are cognitively capable. We need to get better at connecting students with
financial aid to help them achieve their highest potential and be contributing members of society.”
The study says the tide may be turning. Advances in early identification and treatment of ASDs are likely to increase college
enrollment rates, and with it increased participation in STEM majors.
“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.
This study was funded by the National Science Foundation; Autism Speaks; the National Institute of Mental Health; and the
Institute of Education Sciences.