In Scientific American I saw an article about how Students with Autism Gravitate Towards STEM Majors. That anyone needed to do a study to determine this seems surprising but, as always, you can’t publish something based on common knowledge or common sense, you always have to get a grant and do a study because that’s how journals work. Nevertheless, the information in the article is important. American needs more STEM-focused students going from childhood to the workforce. We are lagging horribly against the global economy in those areas that most drive the welfare of our nation. This we have known for a long time yet schools continue to push an anti-STEM agenda and attitude driving students away from STEM. (To be fare, education itself is not a STEM field so there is a nature anti-STEM bias in any system where the non-STEM portion of the population is in charge of providing the drive towards one type of career path or another.)
The article makes the conclusion that schools, primarily high schools, need to do something to encourage students with autism spectrum disorders, who are already taking an interest in STEM at a higher rate than normal but who attend university at a lower than normal rate for the population, to go on to attend university – to leverage their already existing leaning towards STEM studies. This is not a crazy conclusion, but it is one that screams “thinking inside of the box” – exactly what we want more autistic students to provide an alternative to. Traditional thinking is, if you have kids and you need more people in the economy, pump them through university. But ask those students in question and you’ll get very different answers to what the data is telling us.
There are two main conclusions that I would draw that are wildly divergent from what the article concludes.
The first answer is that making high schools push students towards university is pointless as it is the university system, not the high school, that is broken. Autistic students rarely enjoy school in the way that other students do. They don’t tend to like the focus on sports and other “less costly than academics” activities used to divert attention from the education process. Universities often extend this to new levels. Often they find high school to be lacking in challenge to the point of struggling with boredom. Even those that manage to find challenges in high school are often faced with rigid educational policies and structures that encourage good educational practices for more “mainline” students but undermine the average autistic student’s ability to learn effectively. University only carries on these problems and high school students are conditioned to see university studies as nothing but a waste of time as they will continue with their boredom and poor educational policies. There are universities offering alternatives to the traditional education models but they are few and far between and difficult for high school students to effectively identify.
The second answer is that university should not be needed at all. STEM fields especially lend themselves to self education and in today’s world of unlimited available information the university system is no longer an ivory tower of knowledge but, in fact, often stands as a quagmire of busy work holding back students who can, and would, self educate at a vastly more rapid pace. STEM exposes severe shortcomings in the university education system now that even an average student can acquire all of the necessary educational resources, including lab facilities, to match a university education at home for a tiny fraction of the cost and self educate far past the level of the average professor in a span of time far shorter than an average university curriculum. What needs to be fixed, then, is America’s hiring practices. Some STEM fields, like IT, already far reward those who skip university over those who follow traditional, slow education paths and recognize the important in self education in fields that require life-long learning. But other, less demanding STEM fields like engineering, chemistry, etc. are still relying heavily on the “path of lease resistance” university programs that have been in place for centuries. Fixing these hiring processes, rather than fixing students, to hire the most skilled, more educated and most likely to succeed rather than the easiest to pick via handy HR-enabled metrics will revolutionize American industry both by raising the talent pool considerably and also by allow those best suited for many jobs to not only be recognized but by keeping them from never entering the field.
Encouraging students to pursue STEM studies is fine and this will have positive impact. But when dealing with autistic students perhaps it would be better to leverage the “outside of the box” thinking that they provide to solve the problem that they are presenting to the educational system. If we feel that America’s wealth of autistic students are the salvation of the economy why would we trust the approaches that have failed in the past and are least suited to this popular segment? It’s time to reevaluate how our education and hiring mechanisms are designed and stop using the economy in general as a reverse justification engine to prop up a failed educational infrastructure. If you want the autistic student segment to take the programs seriously you must move from the irrational to the rational.