Finding the Links between College-Level STEM Participation and Autism Spectrum Disorder

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There’s a common perception that people with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) are more likely than the general population to gravitate toward science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. It turns out the perception is true.

Our study results, published online in the November 1 issue of Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, confirmed for the first time that STEM-related majors were more common among college students with ASDs than among students with any other type of disability. (Read the SRI press release)

A Gender Gap

Another interesting finding was the large gender gap. Thirty-nine percent of male students with an ASD majored in STEM fields, compared with three percent of female students with an ASD. There is a similar gender gap in the STEM majors for students in the general population, but the disparity is far less extreme: 29 percent of males compared with 15 percent of females.

Low College Enrollment Rates

Of possible concern is the finding that overall college enrollment rates among young adults with ASDs were quite low: only 32 percent of young adults with an ASD enrolled in college. These numbers were the lowest for all the types of disabilities analyzed, except for those with intellectual disabilities or multiple disabilities.

As mentioned in our study, the National Science Foundation’s 2020 vision statement says that the United States needs to promote a ‘‘world-class science and engineering workforce’’ to maintain its position as a leader in a technologically advancing global economy. So it’s imperative to discover previously untapped sources of STEM talent.

Our study confirms that individuals with an ASD may indeed have the potential to become such a resource. However, support services must be in place to help students succeed. Early intervention programs and life-skills training are critical for students with autism to be prepared for college and then successfully navigate toward STEM majors and careers.

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.

SRI research was funded by Grant HRD-1130088 from the National Science Foundation, Grant R324A120012 from the U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, Autism Speaks, and Grant R01 MH086489 from the National Institute of Mental Health.

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