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Youth with Autism Gravitate toward Science and Technology in College

November 19, 2012


It's a stereotype that young people with autism gravitate toward science, technology, engineering and math – so-called “STEM” careers. A new study co-funded by Autism Speaks backs up this belief. However, it also shows that young adults with autism have one of the lowest college enrollment rates associated with any disability. The report appears online 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," says co-author Paul Shattuck, Ph.D. "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."

Dr. Shattuck is an assistant professor at Washington University, in St. Louis. An Autism Speaks research grant funds his ongoing research on factors that influence adult outcomes for individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

The new report provides the first national picture of college enrollment and study majors for young adults with ASD. It also provides a comparison with individuals affected by 10 other disabilities. These include learning disabilities, speech/language impairment and intellectual disabilities, among others. The researchers found that 34.3 percent of college students with autism are pursuing STEM majors. That's higher than their peers in all other disability categories. It’s also higher than the 22.8 percent of all American students who declare STEM college majors. Students with an ASD were most likely to select science (12.1 percent) or computer science (16.2 percent) as their chosen fields. 

However, the study also supports Dr. Shattuck’s earlier findings that young adults with ASD have one of the lowest postsecondary enrollment rates among young adults with disabilities. Only 15 percent were enrolled in a 4-year college. Around 28 percent were attending a 2-year college.  

Several factors increased the likelihood of enrolling in college. These included the ability to carry on a conversation, having higher intellectual skills and coming from a high-income family. Among college students with autism, those majoring in STEM studies were most likely to be older and male.

"Clearly, only a subset of youth with autism will head to college after high school," Dr. 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."

On the hopeful side, Dr. Shattuck says the tide may be turning. Advances in early identification and treatment of ASDs are likely to increase college enrollment rate, and with it increased participation in STEM majors.

“As childhood autism diagnosis rates are skyrocketing, we must be prepared for the growing number of affected individuals entering adulthood,” adds Autism Speaks Assistant Director of Public Health Research Michael Rosanoff, M.P.H. “Though the majority of one’s life is typically spent as an adult, we still know relatively little about how to best help adults with ASD. For this reason, funding research on adults is a priority for Autism Speaks.”

The study was funded by the National Science Foundation, Autism Speaks, the National Institute of Mental Health and the Institute of Education Sciences. Autism Speaks continues to fund a number of studies with the potential to improve the transition to adulthood and quality of life across the lifespan. You can explore these and other Autism Speaks research grants using this website’s Grant Search.