Autistic Youth Who Make It To College Gravitate Toward STEM Majors
November 16, 2012

Autistic College Youth Gravitate Toward STEM Majors

Alan McStravick for - Your Universe Online

Parents of children with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) received some much needed good news in the form of a study published online in the Journal of Autism and Development Disorders.

The study, co-authored by Paul Shattuck, PhD, assistant professor at the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis, confirms a previously held belief that individuals with an ASD typically graduate to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) majors in college. However, the study also shows that young adults with an ASD have a significantly lower rate of college enrollment, overall.

“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.”

With this study, Shattuck has broken new ground, as this is the first time a national picture of college enrollment and STEM participation for young adults with an ASD has been taken. The researchers compared ASDs to 10 other disability categories for the study. The other disability categories were: speech/language impairment; intellectual disabilities; emotional disturbances; hearing impairment; visual impairment; orthopedic impairment; other health impairment; traumatic brain injury; and multiple disabilities.

What Shattuck and his team discovered was that 34.3 percent of students with an ASD typically gravitated toward STEM majors. This percentage is not only higher than students representative of the other 10 disability categories, but is also higher than the 22.8 percent of students from the general population who had declared a STEM major in college. The subjects most likely to be selected for study by an individual with an ASD were science and computer science, according to the study results.

The unfortunate showing of the study was that young adults with an ASD also have one of the lowest overall college enrollment rates when compared to students in the other disability categories. The researchers learned that several factors contributed to this finding. Playing a role in whether or not an individual with an ASD would enroll in college were factors such as gender, family income and ability to carry on a conversation, among others.

“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.”

Shattuck and the research team seem to think they are witnessing a shifting trend in this lowered enrollment, however. They believe that advances in early identification and treatment of individuals with an ASD are very likely to increase their college enrollment rates. By extension, they also see that increased college enrollment will lead to an 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 concludes.

The study--entitled “STEM Participation Among College Students with an Autism Spectrum Disorder”--was funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF); the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH); the Institute of Education Sciences (IES); and Autism Speaks.