Socializing in STEM Classes and Careers, Part One: Insight for Autistic Students

Have you ever wondered what it is like socially to take STEM classes or work in a STEM-focused workplace? Students who are on the autism spectrum are often encouraged to seek these pathways because of misconceived notions that STEM fields require less communication, people skills, or social prowess. Many STEM careers and college courses are thought to focus on “computer work” without much emphasis on the human interaction necessary for success. Oftentimes, however, collaboration with peers can be daunting but necessary to advance one’s studies and career. I spoke with a current STEM employee on how these social interactions helped him both in his college experience and now in his current field. In an additional post, I will dive into some tips on how to turn these important insights into practice.

Dan Matthews is a Senior Hardware Engineer in Customer Technical Service. He studied Mechanical Engineering Technology and received his Bachelor of Science degree from Central Connecticut State University. Although he is not autistic, he gives an “insider view” into STEM classes and dispels some myths of what social experiences were like in college. He also discusses interactions with his colleagues on a personal level as an engineer.

Q: Dan, did you notice any differences between your STEM classes and your core academic classes (such as English, writing, history, language arts) in terms of the amount of group projects given by the professor or social opportunities that came up?

Yes. Many of the core classes involved individual projects and assignments, but not much group interaction. My STEM classes often involved more in-depth lessons and class participation, as well as group projects where we had to partner with two or three other classmates. Some projects even resulted in giving a presentation to the professor and the rest of the class. I also found myself spending time with classmates outside of class, to help each other with homework or a project.

Q: Did you find that you would often see the same students in your STEM classes time after time?

 Yes I did. We were all [in] similar majors, and many of the STEM classes only had one or two class times offered, so a lot of the same people were in them because they were required courses.

Q: What are some benefits of making a friend who is in the same STEM class as you? How did you get to know someone who was in your class?

Some benefits are that you could have someone to talk about the lesson with and potentially partner with or at least work on homework together. Sometimes they will have taken a class you haven’t taken yet, so they might have a book or notes you can borrow. I got to know others from sitting near people and finding a mutual interest (cars, music, etc.) and asking them about it. Then (in a subsequent class), you would have someone you already knew on the first day.

Q: Are there many opportunities to work with other students in college on STEM course projects even though they are often computer based?

Yes, there are opportunities for collaboration, even on computer-based projects. Sometimes the professor would have us work in groups on the computer, and other times we were all working separately, but we were allowed to ask other people if we had a question. For example, many times when using Excel, someone would have trouble getting a formula to work. A friend could quickly check it out and correct the error.

Q: Switching gears to post-college, what are some social expectations in your current work place? Do you spend most of your day alone at the computer? Are you expected to attend any meetings? Have you ever had to speak in front of a group?

In my current position, I do sit at the computer; however, being in customer support, it means I talk to a lot of people. I have to not only interact with my customers (airline employees in my case), but also talk with the various other groups at work when I need to find out information. I need to be able to clearly ask what I need from them, as many of my requests are time-sensitive. Often this means calling someone I don’t know or emailing a large group.

I am expected to attend meetings frequently as well. These can be in person or online, but I find it better to attend in person if possible.

I have had to speak in front of a group many times. I will host meetings, which can include five to ten people. I also had to present at our worldwide conference last year to a group of about 300 people. Part of that event was also meeting and interacting with our customers and representing my company.

Q: What do you think might be some negatives of avoiding social situations in STEM classes or in your current field? What opportunities might someone miss out on?

Some negatives for me would be making school or work life more difficult. It is very beneficial to bounce ideas off classmates or coworkers, as well as getting to know them more personally. After all, I sit with the same people for 40 hours a week, so I want to be friendly with them. This can also be beneficial once you are finishing school or looking to change jobs. Often your classmates or coworkers will know someone in a job that interests you and provide a connection. But if you don’t talk to them, they won’t know how good your work is, and it will be hard for them to recommend you.

Q: Did you get to work with autistic peers in college, or do you now?

I am not aware if I happened to work with anyone in school or now in my current field who has autism or is otherwise neurodivergent. At work no one would ask someone if they had a diagnosis, since medical info is protected. It would be up to the person to share their personal information if they wanted to. I know my work is usually very accommodating for people with disabilities/sicknesses/etc., so I don’t think it would be an issue.

Q: Can you give any advice for people who are drawn to STEM because they don’t feel comfortable working with people?

I believe within the STEM fields there are positions that have minimal interaction with other people. However, it would be rare to find a job that didn’t have meetings or requirements to work with coworkers on a regular basis. While at work it is up to you how much you engage with your cubemates, for me there are some folks I have never spoken to, because they are quiet and keep to themselves. But it would still be expected they participate in meetings or have a discussion if the boss wanted to ask about work.

In part II of this post, I will talk about some strategies on how to put some of Dan’s tips and insider information to work! Thanks to Dan for taking the time to speak with me.

What types of classmate and coworker interactions are you most anxious about or excited about?

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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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