College Students with Autism: STEM Geeks?

A new study seems to support the stereotype that autistic students and scholars are drawn to the STEM disciplines. Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Participation Among College Students with an Autism Spectrum Disorder, by Wei, Yu, Shattuck, et al, indicates I am not alone in being drawn to the STEM fields.

While I love writing, and consider myself a "writer" before most other roles I might have in life, even my writing tends to embrace my "geekhood." I am a geek. When I'm not writing, I'm experimenting with programming tools, new hardware, and reading all I can on websites like Slashdot and Ars Technica. My bookcases reveal my split-personality: books on art theory sit above books on database programming. I tell myself that programming is simply a special form of writing, but few of my colleagues in English or communications would agree. The idea of a programming poet confounds people, especially in an academic world with traditional disciplinary divides.

Some of my colleagues suggest they understand that coding is writing, but too many then say things that are (unconsciously or unintentionally) dismissive of fields beyond the humanities. They view technology with suspicion, at best, and at worst as taking over higher-education at the expense of humanistic values. A few colleagues in the humanities have told me, paraphrasing, "Computer programming is vocational." This overlooks mutlifaceted research in technology, including research that has and will influence the humanities.

Too often, I feel like an outsider while working in an English department. I've written on this blog and elsewhere that I sometimes wonder if I would have been more "successful" and feel more "content" working in a STEM discipline. There are personality differences that I perceive. I feel more at ease talking to people in science and technology departments, as if they can understand me.

Here is what the research published in Journal of Autism Developmental Disorders suggests:
Findings suggest that students with an ASD had the highest STEM participation rates although their college enrollment rate was the third lowest among 11 disability categories and students in the general population. Disproportionate postsecondary enrollment and STEM participation by gender, family income, and mental functioning skills were found for young adults with an ASD.
Research suggesting I'm not alone is reassuring. Normally, I don't care about belonging, but the last year has been difficult for me. I've felt not merely isolated, but even rejected to some extent. I've found comfort at the keyboard — writing and coding. If I could somehow obtain an information technology degree or something else computer-related, I would. What if that is an autistic trait?
The STEM major rate (34.31 %) for young adults with an ASD was not only higher than their peers in all 10 other disability categories, but also higher than the 22.80 % of students in the general population that declared a major in STEM related fields in postsecondary education (Chen and Weko 2009). In addition, this study found that young adults with
an ASD in STEM fields were more likely than the general population to concentrate in science [12.12 vs. 8.3 % (Chen and Weko 2009)] and computer science [16.22 vs.
6.6 % (Chen and Weko 2009)].
Computers are nicer than people — because they cannot be mean. Computers are predictable, even when you are exploring ideas of "chaos" and "randomness" via software algorithms. In STEM fields, you are judged by the code, by the science, by what you accomplish. You can be "strange" and do well within the STEM disciplines. I've met plenty of "quirky" scientists.

Some will argue with this, but based on my experiences, the humanities disciplines are more personality and politically driven. The "scholarship" is often nothing more than opinions on what might be the "right" way to teach or the "right" positions to take. English, composition, and rhetoric are the realms of "Social Justice Pedagogies" and "Activist Scholarship" that you won't find in most STEM peer-review journals. Being political — in the "correct" way — is part of what helps with the journey towards tenure. I simply want to study how people learn to write; I'd rather not be an activist in my classroom or in my scholarship. Isn't teaching itself contributing to society?

Being a student or a scholar is social, no matter what. The social skills required to succeed in college were difficult for me and are an obstacle for many autistics. I attended at least five institutions on my path towards a doctorate. The social barriers do force many autistics out of higher education, and that's sad: those of us with the skills and knowledge lack the social skills demanded by the setting.
While the STEM participation rate of young adults with an ASD appeared to be high, their postsecondary enrollment rate was the third lowest of all the disability categories.
As advances continue in the early identification and treatment of children with autism (Hart et al. 2010), these enrollment rates are likely to increase and, consequently, STEM participation among individuals with an ASD may also continue to increase over time.
I'm not sure what is ahead of me. If I remain in higher education, I know it will never be easy for me to navigate the humanities. One option would be to teach writing courses at a STEM-focused institution. Another option would be to teach at a research institution that embraces the "nonpolitical" research I favor (which is still advocacy for disabled students). Sometimes, I feel that I am being forced out of education because I'm in a discipline that doesn't accept my personality or my mix of interests. Being autistic has been a problem, at least in English departments.

My interests are needed, though. Autistics with passions for STEM disciplines are needed in this economy and will be valuable well into the future. It is nice that the researchers consider autistics "a resource" for society.
In an era where a world-class science and engineering workforce is needed to remain competitive in a technologically advancing global economy, it becomes imperative
to discover previously untapped sources of STEM talent. This study confirms that individuals with an ASD may indeed have the potential to become such a resource.
How can I be one of those resources? How can I find my "home" in academia?


  1. Try philosophy! Focus on Logic ... not Ethics like I did. Or Artificial Intelligence (AI)?


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