Preparing Students with Autism for a STEM Career

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    Last week, I wrote about viewing autism as an IT asset. The post stemmed from a discussion I’d had with Dr. Ellis Crasnow, director of STEM3 Academy, a school in Valley Glen, Calif., for high-functioning students who are on the autism spectrum, or who have other social and learning differences. As enlightening as Crasnow’s contribution to that discussion was, equally enlightening, and what I want to share here, is the story behind STEM3 Academy itself.

    STEM3 Academy operates under the auspices of The Help Group, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit dedicated to serving young people with special needs related to autism spectrum disorder and various learning disabilities. The academy opened in August as a school for students in grades nine through 12, and in October announced an expansion to grades six through 12, with an enrollment of around 70 students.

    I opened this portion of my conversation with Crasnow by asking him about the origin and significance of the name of the academy. Why STEM cubed? Crasnow explained it this way:

    We serve students who are either gifted or very strong academically, which is one aspect. A second aspect is that they gravitate toward STEM—they either have a skill in that area or an intense interest or passion for a STEM-related activity. Third, they’re all socially in need of support—they either have social or learning differences, or they’re on the autism spectrum. A significant number of our students are on the autism spectrum. You’ve possibly heard of students who are ‘twice exceptional’—we regard our students as ‘thrice exceptional,’ because of these three-fold distinguishing features that they have.

    Crasnow said if the students are on the autism spectrum, they’re on the very high end. He said they’re all highly academic, and they’re all exceptionally bright and engaged:

    One of the distinguishing features we’ve found is that kids on the spectrum who are high-functioning do have a series of natural attributes and skills, which have them gravitating toward STEM pursuits. That’s really one of the main reasons for having the school. On the one hand, you have all these kids who are very high-functioning; on the other hand, you have STEM fields where there’s this huge demand for qualified and skilled individuals who have interest in those areas. The idea is to marry the two—you have this huge demand on the one side, and you have this huge supply on the other side. There’s this natural connection between the two.

    I noted that there’s an ongoing effort by various non-profit organizations to encourage girls to pursue STEM careers, so I asked Crasnow whether STEM3 Academy is doing anything in that regard. He said the ratio of girls to boys at the academy is higher than one might expect:

    Typically, among individuals with autism, there are around one-fifth as many girls as there are boys. We have somewhere around one-third of our students who are girls. We do encourage girls—we offer classes in computer science, classes in CAD, robotics after school; we have a lot of hand tools, power tools, machine tools, and we absolutely involve girls and boys indiscriminately. We want everybody to be involved. We have a Girls’ Club; we are also going to establish a Girls’ Coding Club—so we certainly want to join the movement to have as many girls as possible engaged in the STEM fields. They have outstanding talent, and we want to encourage and support that.


    I asked Crasnow what, in his experience, he has found to be the biggest misunderstanding that the general public has about individuals with autism in general, and children with autism in particular. His response was immensely informative:

    I think we have lived for quite some time with a view of individuals with disabilities in general, and individuals on the autism spectrum in particular, in terms of being ‘less capable than.’ It goes back to the question of whether we should be viewing this as a disorder, which is what it is viewed as. Sometimes individuals on the autism spectrum do have difficulty forming social relationships; sometimes it can be difficult for them to interview—to them, that might be viewed as sort of a confrontational situation, which they don’t engage in too readily. But just because that might be true of them, it doesn’t mean they’re any less able to make marvelous contributions on their own, to go to college, to engage in a field, and to have a really successful career. Unfortunately, the statistics are the opposite. The Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2014 showed that if you look at people with special needs overall, 80 to 90 percent of them are either unemployed or under-employed. If you look at general statistics just about autism, something like 34 percent of individuals with autism have never had a job since they graduated from high school. In my mind, those are the numbers I’m fighting against. In one respect, the motive force for the school, if nothing else, is really to combat those numbers—to change that outlook. I want our students to graduate from high school, and have a bright future ahead. I want them to go to a great college that’s a good fit for them, and I want them to enter into a well-paying career, just as any of their peers do.

    Crasnow wrapped up the conversation by explaining that changing that outlook is what drives him:

    I think the public perception is changing. But if we could make one change, it would be to move from a ‘deficit’ understanding of those with special needs, to an ‘asset’ understanding. We’re all rewarded in life for the things we do well. For individuals on the spectrum, it’s not fruitful during their high school years to try to drum into them a skill or an aptitude that isn’t there, and possibly won’t ever be there to any great degree. I’d rather find workarounds to the things they’re not good at, and propel them as far forward as I can on what they do well.

    A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.

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