A new SRI-led study finds that people with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are significantly more likely to choose STEM majors, if they attend college. The study also paints the first picture of college enrollment and participation in STEM majors for young adults with ASDs, compared with their peers in 10 other disability categories and compared with youth in the general population.
The findings, published online November 1 in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders [http://www.springerlink.com/content/e4x4818242078875/], highlight the need for educational support and services for students with autism to enroll in college and navigate toward STEM majors and careers.
The study used the data from 2009, which included 660 students who received special education services in the autism category during their K-12 years, 84 percent of whom were male. The survey included students with ASDs as well as students in 10 other special education disability categories, including hearing or visual impairment, learning disabilities, and traumatic brain injury. The data included family income, conversation ability, mental functioning skills, and choice of major by individuals attending college. Majors classified as "STEM" include computer science, programming, information technologies, engineering, mathematics and statistics, science, biology, earth science, geology, physics, chemistry, and environmental science. Social, behavioral, and economic sciences and the health and medical sciences were not included as STEM fields. The study results 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.
The high proportion of STEM majors among college students with ASDs, however, is mostly the result of young men's choices. Thirty-nine percent of male college students with ASD major in STEM. That's 10 percentage points more than males in the general population and is cause for celebration. On the other hand, only 3 percent of female college students have STEM majors. That is 12 percentage points less than females in the general population and is cause for concern. Of possibly even greater concern is the fact that, despite the high STEM majors among college students, overall college enrollment rates among young adults with ASDs were quite low. Overall, Wei's team found that only 32 percent of the 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.
This study offers insights that can both inform interventions AND future research.
- Autism and STEM Careers Dec2012.pdf (209.0 K)