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Autism and STEM: Considerations for Students Thinking About Careers

Many autistic students are told that they might be great candidates for a career in Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math (STEM). As the need for workers in these fields increases, more and more employers are finding success hiring and integrating autistic individuals into their workforce. Hospitals, governments, newsrooms, homes, K-12 schools, universities, technology start-ups, and many other businesses and workplaces depend on technology to communicate, innovate, and run operations efficiently. However, it might be challenging to narrow down which particular area of study and future career path will actually bring happiness and fulfillment to your life. How will you know what will feel empowering and rewarding as an outlet for your specific interests and abilities? Depending on your specific skill set and autism profile, certain jobs might just be the right fit.

Common strengths among autistic people include attention to detail, visual discrimination, and strong long-term memory, all of which can be advantageous to careers such as software debugging, artificial intelligence creation, and video game design. In a 2012 article by Gareth Cook, he highlights how skills many autistic people display “like intense focus and careful execution” were highly desired for large tech companies. A director at one of Denmark’s largest telecommunication firms “slowly conceived a business plan: many companies struggle to find workers who can perform specific…tasks, like data entry or software testing; some autistic people would be exceptionally good at those tasks” (Cook, 2012). Initiatives like this have taken off in the last few years as companies are becoming more inclusive, neurodivergent-aware, and looking to diversify their workforce.

A 2016 article from Take Part focuses on one school’s innovative approach to teaching autistic STEM students and reminds us that “Some people with autism spectrum disorder have inherent abilities that make them well-suited for careers in science and technology, especially computer programming” (Cowen). The school’s director, Dr. Ellis Crasnow, points out that autistic students:

‘can have highly superior visual discrimination. That is the ability to tell difference very, very easily,’ noting that many people dismiss this ability as inconsequential. ‘That’s an exceptional gift. If you’re a software debugger, often there are very subtle differences you’re looking for, a comma instead of a period, a symbol missing or a letter missing. They will focus on those differences very quickly, whereas you or I might not.’ (Cowen, 2016)

STEM careers might be the right fit for someone with autism because of the strong overlap between skills that are necessary to be successful or make a meaningful impact and traits identified as particular strengths in autistic individuals. So, how do you know which of your strengths will translate to a successful career? Think about what drives you and helps you stay focused.

In today’s job market, your greatest skill might be your biggest asset, regardless of what areas, if any, you still struggle with:

This march toward greater specialization, combined with the pressing need for expertise in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, suggests that the prospects for autistic workers will be on the rise in the coming decades. If the market can forgive people’s weaknesses, then they will rise to the level of their natural gifts. (Hughes, 2017)

Plus, don’t forget to account for the type of problems to solve or tasks to complete that make you feel fulfilled, proud, and successful. Assess your own needs, interests, and goals and discuss with a career counselor or parent to help identify and apply your specific strengths. For example, if you are interested in tech companies but don’t enjoy the particular workflow of data analysis as much as you thought, look for a position in human resources or management within the same general field. If you get a jolt of excitement after laboriously looking and then finding a minor error in a lengthy code, look for jobs that will involve this sort of careful attention.

Here is a list of features that are important to success in certain STEM fields that overlap with common traits that many autistic people have:

  • Enjoy working towards a clear end point where progress can be seen
  • Strong attention to detail and ability to discriminate slight differences
  • Devotion to accuracy
  • An ability to distinguish between similar sounds
  • High visual acuity
  • Enjoy focusing on an exclusive task
  • An ability to rotate three-dimensional models mentally
  • Quickly encode and analyze information
  • Doesn’t mind periods of solitary work
  • Logical outlook and approach to problems
  • Enjoy knowing a high degree of detail about a specific topic

(Cook, 2012 and Soulières et. al, 2009)

As mentioned earlier, do not be discouraged to apply and interview for jobs that might be intimidating or because you feel anxiety around the hiring process or the novelty of meeting new coworkers and new administrators. Be up front with your interviewing team about your profile, and be confident in the skills you do have any why they would be a great fit for a certain field. Think and speak about what you hope to get out of this job on a personal level. As more companies learn why neurodiverse practices can amplify their job site atmosphere and benefit their overall employee production, hopeful autistic employees will be better represented and understood in the modern workforce.

In the meantime, if it makes you feel more comfortable, you can hone in and practice some soft skills for interviews and getting to know your coworkers socially, or tackle any anxiety more directly.

What skills do you have that you think will be important in tackling a STEM career?
What strengths do you find help you the most in your current studies or work?
Let me know in the comments below! You might also like Autism and STEM: Am I Ready for the College Experience? What Are My Goals?

References
  • Cook, G. (2012, Nov 29). The autism advantage. The New York Times. Retrieved from: nytimes.com/(autism-advantage)
  • Cowan, S. (2016). Kids with autism find path at STEM-focused school. Take Part. Retrieved from: takepart.com/(LA-stem-school)
  • Hughes, A. (2017). Myths & facts about autism spectrum disorder. Kennedy Krieger Institute. Retrieved from: kennedykrieger.org/(facts-about-asd)
  • Preston, E. (2018, February 12). Work In Progress: An inside look at autism’s job boom. Retrieved from spectrumnews.org(autisms-job-boom)
  • Soulières, I., Dawson, M., Samson, F., Barbeau, E. B., Sahyoun, C. P., Strangman, G. E., . . . Mottron, L. (2009). Enhanced visual processing contributes to matrix reasoning in autism. Human Brain Mapping, 30(12), 4082-4107. doi:10.1002/hbm.20831
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Katie Matthews

Katie is a part time speech and language pathologist and part time professional runner. Katie received both her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from Boston University in Speech, Hearing, and Language Sciences and Speech-Language Pathology, respectively. She also trains on the Boston Athletic Association High Performance Team. Katie has experience in public and private schools as well as private clinic settings. She works with children and young adults with a variety of disabilities, including those with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Katie loves to share executive functioning and planning tips along with the more traditional social language strategies to help students succeed.

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