The Ultimate Resource Guide for STEM Students With Autism
In an ideal world, any child who has a passion for science and the will to pursue it would be able to do so. But for countless children with autism, opportunities to explore such interests are often frustratingly few and far between.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 17 percent of children between the ages of 3 and 17 have one or more developmental disabilities, including Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Past research indicates that many of these children gravitate toward science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) once exposed to the disciplines. One such study found that over a third of young adults with an autism spectrum disorder (34.1 percent) chose a STEM major in college. This rate is significantly higher than that of the general student population (22.8 percent).
But despite their penchant for science and tech, youth with disabilities are often excluded from STEM activities in educational settings due to mistaken assumptions about their learning capacity.
“This missed opportunity is detrimental for these children,” Megan Vinh, an Advanced Technical Assistance Specialist at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, explained in an article on the matter. It’s not just that they are being excluded from this — it’s really an opportunity they are denied, and that is a true inequity.”
Vinh explains that students with learning disabilities like autism might be taken out of class to receive other services while their peers engage in STEM activities. Alternatively, some schools might deprioritize science learning out of a belief that such students can gain more from different areas of learning. “But we know from research that engaging in STEM supports gains in other content areas, so it’s critical they participate,” she concludes.
Indeed, this lack of access is unfortunate, especially given that the benefits of childhood exposure to STEM are well-documented.
“STEM habits of mind — such as critical thinking, persistence, and systematic experimentation — are important across all subject areas and may be essential to how children learn to learn,” researcher Elisabeth McClure explained in an article for the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). “This development is not just about the basics like counting and vocabulary, although these skills and background knowledge are important too; it’s about problem solving and other higher-level skills that transfer across many domains.”
To McClure’s point, STEM education is not just about building science skills or driving children toward technology careers. Research indicates that it can also support ingenuity and creativity, build resilience and experimentation, promote teamwork, and advance problem-solving skills and adaptability.
But despite the benefits noted above, many students with ASD are not encouraged to pursue post-secondary education at all. The same researchers who reported the correlation between students with ASD and increased interest in STEM majors also found that these students had the third-lowest level of post-secondary enrollment out of the ten disability categories they studied.
What does this mean? If educators and parents provide greater academic support at earlier ages, including exposure to STEM, more students may have access to post-secondary educational opportunities. As the study concludes, if “advances continue in the early identification and treatment of children with autism…these enrollment rates are likely to increase and, consequently, STEM participation among individuals with an ASD may also continue to increase over time.”
Education for students with autism and other disabilities is changing. The principle of inclusion has become widely supported and recognized by national, state, and local educational authorities and has become a mandate for most districts. However, barriers prevent students with autism from being genuinely engaged in school STEM activities, especially at the early age levels. We need to do more to improve these students’ access to STEM studies and higher education as a whole.
Below, we’ve listed a few major disciplines, each with a summary of the field and a series of resources for students with autism who want to pursue their passion for science, technology, engineering, or mathematics.
STEM Resource Categories
Programming involves writing code that provides instructions to a computer that enables it to operate, run software programs, or execute applications. This code drives everything from the operation of your everyday desktop or laptop to the websites you visit and the mobile apps you download.
Below, we’ve included a few resources that may help children with autism learn introductory programming concepts.
- 3 Reasons Autistic Children Excel at Computer Coding — This article notes that children on the autism spectrum often excel in computer programming because it is logical, predictable, and generally well-suited for visual learners. It also explains how children with ASD benefit from programming courses.
- Coding for Kids with Autism – The Ultimate Guide for Parents and Educators — This article provides a guide for parents and educators who want to help their students learn to code. It offers tips, indicates challenges, and points out the advantages of teaching programming to children with autism. The guide also provides specific examples of appropriate coding projects for younger children.
- Coding for Life Course by Autism Spectrum Australia — Available on iTunes, this course was developed by Autism Spectrum Australia to introduce kids to computer programming. It was designed specifically for kids with autism and imparts daily life skills as well as programming knowledge.
- Turing Tumble — This educational toy allows children to learn about how computers work from the inside out by building marble-powered computers and seeing the power of switches and connections firsthand.
From bridges and buildings to toasters, TVs, and computers, engineers guide and advance their design and implementation. Engineers use STEM principles to develop solutions to real-life problems, bringing the science of STEM into practice in society. Engineering can involve a wide array of specialties, including chemical engineering, mechanical engineering, civil engineering, and electrical engineering.
Here are a few resources that can help children with ASD pursue their interest in engineering.
- Being an Autistic Engineer — This article, written by an engineer with autism, discusses the traits of many people with autism and why they may be well-suited to engineering. He recalls his own interest in engineering from a young age and encourages engineering education for children.
- Space Engineers Game — This educational sandbox game imparts physics and engineering lessons while players explore space and strange planets.
- Unofficial Minecraft STEM Lab for Kids — Minecraft is a viral video game for younger children. This guidebook offers innovative projects for the whole family that make use of Minecraft to explore critical topics in engineering and physics.
- Using Lego Therapy for Autism — LEGO bricks have been a great educational toy for many years, as they can spark interest in building and construction. Here, the author notes that this beloved toy can also help children with autism pick up more social skills.
- 15 Amazing Lego Builds for the Young Engineer — Here are some creative projects that incorporate engineering concepts into LEGO play.
Data scientists combine programming skills, statistical and mathematical knowledge, and topical knowledge to analyze and extract insights from raw data. Their work can be useful for companies, governments, marketers, and many others who want to better understand how populations act and why.
Here are some resources to support your child’s interest in this growing field.
- Students With Autism Excel in Working With Data, Helping Scientists — This article highlights the successes that data scientists with autism have achieved despite being told they had little potential in STEM.
- Beats Empire — This educational game riffs on the idea of competition in the music industry. Players leverage mathematics and data science concepts such as trend analysis to determine which “artists” will rise to the top.
- The ABCs of Data Science: By Real Data Scientists, For Future Data Scientists — This book introduces data science basics to early readers and imparts key principles in a fun, accessible manner.
- Neurodiversity as a Competitive Advantage in Data Engineering — This article makes a case for why neurodiverse people may be better suited to data science and engineering than most others.
- Machine Learning for Kids — Machine learning and artificial intelligence are on the advanced edge of data science. These IBM-created activities give kids the chance to explore the basic tenets of machine learning.
Physics, which examines matter and its motion through space and time, underlies many of the applied STEM fields, including computer programming, data science, and engineering. Physics can include these more applied studies as well as broader, theoretical studies of nature that aim to understand why the universe behaves in the ways that it does.
Check out the resources below to support your child’s education in physics.
- Different Kettle of Fish: A Day in the Life of a Physics Student with Autism — This illustrated book vividly tells the story of a physics student with autism.
- My First Book of Quantum Physics — This book for young readers introduces advanced quantum physics concepts in an accessible, easy-to-read, and illustrated manner.
- Physics Workshop — This educational toy kit offers a wide array of tools and activities, including 36 models and 37 experiments for kids to try.
- 7 Video Games That Are Perfect For Teaching Physics — Video games offer students an accessible means to learn basic physics concepts. This article details seven such games that offer children the chance to balance their physics lessons with play.
- Q&A: Daisy Shearer, experimental physicist and autism ambassador — A Ph.D. candidate in physics speaks about her experiences as a researcher with ASD and the importance of prioritizing academic inclusion from an early age.
Sure, video games are often pitched as child’s play — but designing and creating video games is a significant STEM career! Game design takes a lot of work; the job includes planning, writing, and programming interactive content. Coding skills are essential to game design, and gaming can spark a young person’s interest in complex programming concepts.
Here are some game design resources that can foster a love of STEM among young people.
- How Satoshi Tajiri, a Game Designer with Autism, Created an International Phenomenon — This article details how the creator of Pokémon, a game designer with autism, leveraged his neurodiversity and creative skills to achieve international success in game development.
- Peter Lantz: Using His Asperger’s For A Career In Video Games — This interview explains how one game designer with autism found career success and turned over new opportunities in the game design field.
- GameMaker Studio — This easy-to-use game development software helps young people and people of all ages to get started learning game design with a built-in language.
- 14 Tools to Turn Game-Obsessed Kids into Genuine Game Designers — Countless kids love video games. This article provides insights on how parents and students can turn a child’s passion for gaming into a talent for game design.
- Start Them Young: Kids’ Video Game Maker — This article provides tips and resources for parents and educators on how to get kids involved in gaming design from an early age.
Astrophysics, the science of space, uses the laws and principles of chemistry and physics to understand our universe. It studies the stars, planets, galaxies, and other objects in the universe, dealing with the physical properties, movement, and behavior of celestial objects.
Below are some resources to encourage interest in astrophysics among children with autism.
- Jacob Barnett’s Curious and Computational Mind — This article interviews Jacob Barnett, an exceptional thinker with ASD, who became a world-leading theoretical physicist in his teens.
- Astrophysics for Young People in a Hurry — This book explores physics and the nature of space and time through an illustrated, accessible format.
- Kerbal Space Program — This educational game allows players to create and manage their own space program and explore astrophysics concepts.
- Activities for the Classroom — These classroom activities, provided by NASA, are designed to spark kids’ interest in astrophysics.
- Stellarium — This free, open-source planetarium for the home computer offers detailed sky images that allow budding astrophysicists to explore the universe.
The entire universe is made up of chemicals — everything you do involves chemicals in some way — from the chemical processes inside your body to the food that you eat. Chemistry studies matter, its properties, and how it interacts with energy and other matter.
People might think of lab testing or hazardous substances when they think of chemistry, but in many ways, chemistry is a study of the building blocks of life. It is a foundational part of cooking, cleaning, and countless other everyday activities.
Use the resources below to inspire young children with ASD to explore the field!
- How to Support Students With Autism Spectrum Disorder — Some chemistry projects can be stressful or challenging for students with autism. This article explores ways to make them accessible and engaging.
- Chemistry Puzzles, Games & Toys — The American Chemistry Association curated this list of games and toys for parents who want to provoke and support their child’s interest in chemistry.
- Top Chemistry Projects for Bored Kids — Here are some chemistry projects that can be fun, enjoyable, and educational for children interested in science.
- Exploring the Elements: A Complete Guide to the Periodic Table — This accessible, enjoyable guide takes readers on an illustrated tour of the periodic table of elements.
- HoloLAB Champions — This enjoyable educational game gives players the chance to take part in an engaging, laboratory-based competition.
Biology is, quite simply, the study of life. It involves studying living organisms and their structure, growth, evolution, and development. Biology helps us understand the earth, develop medical treatments, and explore unknown plants and creatures — and much, much more.
Explore these resources below to introduce children with autism to the basics of biology.
- Cell Structures Biology Interactive Adapted Book — This adapted book on cell structures is specifically designed for students with autism and offers an abundance of illustrated resources.
- 7 Video Games That Can Teach You About Biology — This listicle offers a number of educational (but fun!) biology-centric video games.
- The Girl Who Thought in Pictures: The Story of Dr. Temple Grandin — This book tells the story of Dr. Temple Grandin, a biologist with autism. The book is illustrated and accessible for younger children.
- 5 Biology Experiments You Can Do at Home — This article describes five biology experiments that kids can try without a lab setting.
- Free Science Lesson Plan and Resources – The Coloured Ice and Oil Experiment — This biology-centric lesson plan is specifically designed to suit young learners with ASD.
In a world where climate change is a significant concern, many young learners want to do everything they can to improve the environment and protect it from harm. Environmental science brings together biology, chemistry, engineering, physics, geology, and meteorology to better understand ecology and the effects of human interaction on the planet.
Below, you’ll find a few resources to cultivate children’s interest in environmental science.
- Autism and Earth Science Resources — Teachers Pay Teachers provides an array of lesson plans and quizzes designed to promote earth science education for kids with autism.
- TED-Ed on Environmental Science — TED videos are known for their short-form, engaging approach to informative lessons. These videos explore environmental science topics in an accessible manner.
- 5 Awesome Environmental Science Learning Games — Here are five exceptional video games that promote environmental learning.
- 16 Cool Environmental Science Projects — This article overviews 16 hands-on projects that can foster kids’ interest in the earth sciences.
- 33 Great Children’s Books for Earth Day — Explore a wide array of engaging books designed to interest young people in environmental science.
Mathematics involves the study of numbers and how they interact. This field can involve theoretical analysis as well as applied mathematics topics such as statistics or game theory. Mathematics is at the core of many disciplines, including computer science, engineering, the natural sciences, medicine, and finance.
Check out these resources below for ideas on how to further math education for students with autism!
- Why Are People With Autism Often Good at Maths? New Study Offers a Clue — This article explores why children with autism often find great success and interest in mathematics.
- 7 Video Games To Help Make Teaching Math Fun — Is your child a gamer? Pair the fun with math by introducing them to these educational video games!
- Practical Mathematics for Children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder and Other Developmental Delays — This book offers specific suggestions and approaches to teaching mathematics to children with autism.
- Amazing Visual Math — Many kids with autism are visual learners. This book makes math fun and engaging by presenting arithmetic concepts through illustration.
- Simple Ways to Help a Child With Autism Master Math — This article offers tips and tricks on promoting math education for students with autism, especially at an early age.
These are just some of the exciting STEM areas that can provoke great interest and engagement for students with autism.
It’s time for kids with autism to be fully included in all areas of STEM study and pursue any passion they might have for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. With these resources at hand, you can help these students achieve their academic potential — and perhaps even spark a lifelong interest.