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).

A chart showing STEM participation rates among college students with autism compared to the general population.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.

A chart showing the college enrollment rates among young adults with autism compared to other disabilities.

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. 

Happy explorations!

STEM Resource Categories

Programming

Overview

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. 

Resources

  • 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.
  • Tynker: Coding for Kids Made Easy — This coding platform is designed to educate and entertain children as they learn coding languages such as JavaScript and Python. Over 60 million kids have learned to program on Tynker.

Engineering

Overview

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.

Resources

  • 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 Science

Overview

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.

Resources

Physics

Overview

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.

Resources

Game Design

Overview

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.

Resources

Astrophysics

Overview

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.

Resources

  • 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.

Chemistry

Overview

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!

Resources

Biology

Overview

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.

Resources

Environmental Science

Overview

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.

Resources

Mathematics

Overview

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!

Resources

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. 

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