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Is there Truth to the Neurodivergent STEM Stereotype?
Is there Truth to the Neurodivergent STEM Stereotype?
Busting the Myth: Neurodivergents are only good at STEM roles
Do you remember Sheldon Cooper from the Big Bang Theory? He’s a physicist that has to knock a precise number of times before he opens a door, says he has trouble reading social cues, and is often rude without knowing it. He’s a highly successful professional in the world of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) - and if he was real, he would certainly check all the boxes for an autism diagnosis.
The cinema trope of the “eccentric professor”, demonstrated by characters such as Flint Lockwood from Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Doc Brown from Back to the Future, and Professor Brainard from Flubber, all demonstrate that the Western collective consciousness tends to think of STEM professionals as carrying neurodivergent traits, such as poor social skills, inattention, poor manual dexterity, and others. In fact, many autistic people claim that they’re automatically assumed to be good at STEM when they share that they’ve been diagnosed. But, did this stereotype originate in reality? And how do any correlations to STEM aptitude vary across neurodivergent diagnoses?
Origins in Autism
The majority of references to the STEM stereotype are focused on autism specifically, and it is fair to say that many autistic traits do lend themselves to a STEM mindset. For example, autistic people tend towards hyperfocus, introversion, pattern recognition, and a need for order. This lends itself well to the high levels of focus and alone time needed to solve problems in a STEM career. In fact, studies show that those in STEM professions tend to score higher than average on the Autism Quotient test, a test designed by psychologists to screen for people who might be struggling with undiagnosed autism. Additionally, people who are gifted in math are more likely to have ASD than average.
A more popularized assessment of cognitive aptitude, Intelligence Quotient (IQ) testing, also has roots in the STEM field. Gifted education based on IQ testing was originally developed for the United States government to screen and bolster potential STEM talent. Interestingly, scientists suggest a connection between high IQ scores and autistic traits. However, studies usually show that autistics score about the same as neurotypicals in math when matched for IQ tests. In fact, the majority of autistics perform average or below average on IQ tests, and IQ tests statistically predict college grades in STEM well.
Performance is sometimes due to intelligence, but often because many skills - communication, listening, the ability to sit through a test - are needed both to succeed in STEM school and to successfully take an IQ test.
Those in the autistic community frequently lament, and psychologists agree, that IQ tests and other standardized evaluations of cognition don’t truly represent their real abilities and intelligence. For example, Mentra’s mission was inspired by our CEO’s non-speaking autistic brother, Vikram. Vikram was assumed to be intellectually disabled based on childhood testing and evaluation. As he gained access to alternative communication methods, it became clear that his autism had no diminishing impact on his intellect. In reality, the opposite was true. Vikram had taught himself a variety of challenging subjects such as poetry writing, literary analysis, astronomy, and mathematics through his exceptional listening and comprehension skills.
Autism, Gender, & STEM
Some evidence of correlation between autistic traits and STEM aptitude has sparked controversy, particularly when considering the complex relationships between autism, STEM, and gender. On average, men are more likely to major in STEM in college than women are. Men have also historically been more likely to be diagnosed as autistic. While the reasons for these statistics have been up for debate, these correlations are worth exploration.
Some psychologists have theorized that autism represents a “hypermasculine brain”, as many traits more associated with men than women are also autistic traits. For example, statistically, men tend to be more driven to pay attention to objects and women are more driven to pay attention to people. Importantly, this is not evidence that women aren’t as good at STEM, as they often become more attracted to STEM careers when they are told the field represents an opportunity to help people. In addition, cultural influences often prepare and encourage men and women toward different fields that align with traditional gender norms. However, on average, there is evidence to show that men and women are motivated by different things careerwise.
Similarly, autism sometimes represents a more extreme deviation, where those diagnosed strongly prefer to pay attention to objects regardless of gender. This might represent a brain more geared towards engineering, and autistic men and women that have college degrees are more likely than average to have majored in STEM. Data collected by Mentra on career interests supports this.
Three of the four most commonly selected desired career fields by neurodivergents were STEM-related, including “data related fields”, “research”, and “computer science and IT”. However, many psychologists and autistic feminists have pushed against this theory, and say it contributes to the large underdiagnosis of autistic women.
A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
Similarly, the STEM stereotype might be “a self-fulfilling prophecy”. This common conception of autistic individuals may be pushing autistics to feel like they have no choice but to go into STEM careers. The hyperfocus trait of autism represents a way for neurodivergents to feel secure, and science is ultimately a social system; it doesn’t exist in nature. Autistics might “push” themselves to choose STEM as a hyperfocus because they know it is highly valued by society, and may worry that their “soft skills” aren’t good enough to get a job on their own. Some autistics might even feel that STEM is what society expects from them as an autistic person!
Autistics and other marginalized groups often determine their entire career path by pursuing what can be seen as lucrative or in-demand STEM related jobs.
As a wider variety of people are diagnosed with autism, as autism used to imply comorbid intellectual disability, we might see a stronger autism-STEM connection. But for now, it’s fair to hypothesize that there’s a connection between STEM and autistic traits, but perhaps not with autism itself and STEM.
If You’ve Met One Neurodivergent, You’ve Met One Neurodivergent
On the same vein, neurodivergence represents more conditions than just autism, with ADHD and dyslexia being two of the most commonly discussed. These two disorders represent a “mixed bag” for STEM. For example, people with ADHD tend towards creativity and “out of the box” thinking, which is highly valued in STEM careers. However, they might find themselves exasperated by the high attention to detail required by the fields. Similarly, dyslexics tend to have better visual acuity and reasoning than the average population, but might struggle with math facts and word problems.
Again, as marginalized groups, those with ADHD and dyslexia might find themselves pressured to go into STEM, especially if the neurodivergent STEM stereotype continues.
Data on roughly 3,000 neurodivergents gathered by Mentra shows that neurodivergents have a wide range of career talents and interests, and why wouldn’t they? The gifts of autism, ADHD, dyslexia, and more extend far beyond careers in STEM, and lend themselves towards art, skilled trades, retail, writing, teaching, and many others. The most commonly selected career field on Mentra was actually art & design, and writing and language services was almost as commonly selected as computer science was. Careers that stereotypes would make neurodivergents seem like a horrible fit for (i.e. entertainment, psychology/counseling, and education) all make the top ten most selected fields by Mentra members.
Thus, it is important to nurture it if a neurodivergent finds themselves interested in these careers, but not for neurodivergents to pressure themselves if they know their skills or interests are better served elsewhere. Capitalistic society as a whole has to learn to accommodate neurodivergent traits so they are accepted in a wide variety of fields. Currently, the technology field seems to be leading the charge for greater neurodivergent acceptance, which is great, but also might create a self-fulfilling prophecy. I can speak from my own experience that I studied neuroscience and computer science in college, but ended up being a professional writer.
Find Your Next Career Opportunity
Mentra is connected to a wide range of companies – from finance, to counseling, to technology – and understands that neurodiverse people have a wide range of talents and interests to bring to the workforce. If you are a neurodivergent who hasn’t found the right job match, consider exploring the options that Mentra has to offer.
About the Author
Mikaela Marinis is a “quirky” #actuallyautistic professional writer for the technology industry, with backgrounds in neuroscience and computer science. She’s always loved to learn, from world religions to animals, and to share what she learns with others. Mikaela frequently volunteers to help neurodiverse people in their work life, as she is neurodiverse herself and hopes to use her successes and failures to help others.
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