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Students With Autism Choose STEM Majors, if They Go to College

The results of a new study confirm that students with autism spectrum disorders gravitate toward majors in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM—if they make it to college in the first place.

Researchers at the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis found that about 34 percent of students with an autism spectrum disorder chose STEM majors. That inclination was not only higher than students with other types of disabilities, but also higher than students without disabilities, about 23 percent of whom declared a STEM major. Students with autism were most likely to choose science and computer science among the variety of STEM majors.

The study, published online this month in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, also found that young adults with ASD have one of the lowest overall college enrollment rates when compared with students with other disabilities. Gender, family income, and students' ability to carry on a conversation played a role in whether these students attended college.

Researchers used data from the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 to draw their conclusions.

Older students with autism had much higher odds of majoring in science, technology, engineering, and math fields than younger students. Those in families where the household income was less than $75,000 had significantly lower odds of enrolling in either two- or four-year college programs. And those with higher mental functioning skills also had significantly higher odds of enrolling in college than peers. The odds of a major in a STEM field were 13 times higher among males with an autism spectrum disorder than females.

"STEM careers are touted as being important for increasing both national economic competitiveness and individual career earning power," said Paul Shattuck, one of the study's co-authors. "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."

The study provides the first national picture of college enrollment and STEM participation for young adults with autism compared with 10 other disability categories. More college programs designed specifically for students with disabilities—developmental disorders in particular—are emerging, so it will be interesting to see how the college enrollment landscape for these students will change in the future.

"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 said in a written statement. Advances in early identification and treatment of autism are likely to increase college-enrollment rates, and with it increased participation in STEM majors, the study says.

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