Let’s Talk Autism, Academic Special Interests, and STEM

Autism, STEM & special interests. I love special interests. Special interests are fun. They transform reading a Wikipedia article into the most exciting journey you’ve ever been on in your life. They create joy in the most unlikely of circumstances. They enable personal connections that would be nigh-impossible otherwise. And they push you to learn more, work harder, and be better than anyone would ever predict, including yourself.

Special interests are your Marauder’s Map, your hyperdrive, and your superpower. Let’s dive into how, starting with academics, and continuing in my next post with socializing.

One of the first things you’ll notice about college courses is how many of them there are. In high school, you take one class from each of four or five subjects (English, science, history, math, foreign language). In college, even with distribution and major requirements, your choices will be myriad and unstructured.

Where do you Start?

The same place we tend to start most conversations: our special interests.

  • What excites you?
  • What classes would you look forward to attending?

If there’s any class that is directly about one of your interest areas, that would be a very good sign. If nothing jumps out (which is perfectly likely), you will need to think a little deeper, be a little more flexible.

I like to use my special interests as a starting point if I can’t find anything direct. I look for things that are related to my interests, or incorporate an aspect of them. For example, does this potential course cover one of my interests as a part of it? Would taking it inform my understanding of one of my interests? Is it a prerequisite to a class that I really want to take?

I think it’s also worth clarifying at this point that we aren’t restricted to a single high interest area. We can have many, and they don’t even have to be related! Some might even grow at college!

The greatest example for me was when I was trying to register for my classes and was unable to take my first picks. I was quite frustrated, and was trying to find replacements that I would nonetheless enjoy. All of a sudden it clicked that while I loved biology (hence my major), I also enjoyed history a lot in high school, so why not look at that department? Pretty soon I realized that with my level of interest I could get a second major in history with relative ease.

Another bonus to having special interests: motivation. In college, you’ll be taking classes that (hopefully) directly or indirectly channel one of your interest areas. If feels good if and when your homework and interests align. Homework will still feel like homework (I can’t promise miracles), but there’s a sense of satisfaction that is hard to find elsewhere. It can turn lectures from a slog into something to look forward to. It makes studying less bleak. It can remind you: yes, I do belong here, I’ve earned it and I’m going to do great.

But in college, your academic interests don’t have to stop in the classroom. Most STEM professors are conducting research in addition to teaching, and most of them are always looking for interested undergraduates (that’s you) who would be willing to help a little each week. These are great opportunities to get hands-on experience in a potential field. This can be very useful in figuring out what you want to do for a career. It also dramatically improves your prospects for graduate school and a STEM career. Best of all, in most cases the first step is as simple as reading about the professor’s research on their website, then sending an email asking if they have any chances for an undergrad to conduct research.

College is a place where you are encouraged to follow your passions. This has extra meaning for us autistics. It changes the expectations facing us for the better, in my opinion. Now, your interests can enable you to navigate a very large academic environment, and resonate with what is taught in a way our neurotypical peers can only imagine. And that, when nurtured and guided, can and will propel us to future success.

What about you? How have your interests led to practical or personal success? You might also like this fact sheet on STEM careers in NY – good motivation!

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Justin Robbins is currently interning with the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation in Florida, where he works in the Wildlife and Habitat Management Program. He is a recent graduate of Tufts University, having double majored in biology and history. In addition to being an advocate for other autistic people, he enjoys modern board games, great worldbuilding, and truly awful puns.

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