Why do Students with Autism Gravitate Toward STEM Majors?

STEM Majors

School programs in science, technology, engineering, and math—otherwise known as STEM—aim to prepare students for a future in the workforce that keeps pace with the constant advances being made in these fields. What is unique about this type of program is that rather than students learning each of these subjects separately, STEM integrates these four disciplines into a model that teaches the myriad ways the scientific method applies to many aspects of our lives.

To be successful in STEM, it’s necessary to be technologically literate and develop a unique combination of skills that include:

  • Independent, creative, and critical thinking
  • Ability to analyze and solve problems
  • Initiative and innovation
  • Teamwork and communication

Because of the ways in which their brains are wired differently, many of the skills needed for STEM programs play to the strengths of people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), especially those on the higher end who have what used to be called Asperger’s syndrome (or Asperger’s disorder). In fact, a study published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders found that 34.3% of young adults with ASD chose STEM majors compared to 22.8% of neurotypical students.

Because of the ways in which their brains are wired differently, many of the skills needed for STEM programs play to the strengths of people on the autism spectrum, especially those who have what used to be called Asperger’s disorder. Click To Tweet

3 Common Thinking Styles in ASD

While they tend to have an incredible ability to concentrate on topics of interest, all people with ASD do not process information in the same way. Generally speaking, there are 3 types of “thinkers” in ASD, which reflect how an individual’s brain processes information. Usually, one type of thinking will predominate, although it’s quite possible for a person to be influenced by one or both of the other types:

  1. Verbal thinkers tend to be very logical, have strong vocabularies, learn languages easily, like to make lists, and have a great memory for facts. These qualities help them to be very good at analyzing data and critical thinking.
  2. Visual thinkers process information by seeing images in their mind or in the environment and make associations from them to form ideas or conclusions. Dr. Temple Grandin, the well-known author, and professor described her visual thinking process as similar to “a virtual reality computer program.” Visual thinking can be very innovative and help solve problems.
  3. Pattern thinkers are more abstract and can find links or arrangements between certain things like numbers, concepts, and other objects or ideas from which they can create meaningful connections. This type of predominant thinking can help a person excel at mathematics and/or art and lead to creative discoveries.

More Ways ASD and STEM Fit Well Together

In addition to the unique types of thinking in ASD, their ability to focus on details is advantageous for the complex subject matter covered in STEM programs. They can synthesize details into a greater whole or idea by incorporating “bottom-up thinking” whereby associations between even the most minute details become the starting points that lead to the development of new concepts. Conversely, neurotypical thinking usually starts at the top and works down in a manner that is influenced by existing knowledge to analyze details, which can then limit innovation and novel ideas.

Another distinctive quality in ASD is that with their inherent social processing deficits, they are less concerned about the status quo or what others might think, which frees them to be more creative. They aren’t inclined to worry about their ideas being considered weird or odd. In addition, their naturally logical minds along with the diminished capacity for social influence allow people with ASD to use logic to form concepts and reach conclusions, without the interference of emotional thinking or bias.

Getting an Early Start

Increasingly, schools across the country are incorporating STEM programs into the curriculum. Therefore, paying attention to the preferential thinking style demonstrated by a child on the autism spectrum can be a great way to foster early interest in these subject areas. This can help to provide them with an avenue for brain development, building on their strengths and learning new skills that, over the course of time, can lead to meaningful employment and/or college programs later in their lives.

Autism spectrum disorder and other mental health issues can’t wait. During these uncertain times, your mental well-being—and that of your loved ones— is more important than ever.

At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, remote clinical evaluations, and video therapy for adults, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here.


  1. Awesome 👏🏻. My niece has just discovered her daughter has a mild form of autism. She is waiting for further testing. This article is so encouraging! I am going to send it to her. Thank you!

    Comment by Alice — May 28, 2021 @ 5:11 AM

  2. This is fascinating. I had not heard of the ‘bottom up thinking’ concept. All three of my children (in their teens and early 20’s) are ASD high functioning. Their thinking types are mostly combinations, with one kid fitting mostly in the pattern thinking category .

    Comment by Angie Smous — December 11, 2021 @ 7:37 AM

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Leave a comment

Contact Us