STEM Careers - Engineer at Work

Studies have found that people with Autism Spectrum Disorder are more likely than their peers to seek out higher education courses in the areas of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths.

Traits commonly seen in those with Autism, such as analytical thinking and constructing systems, are suited to a STEM Career. Those with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) are more likely than the neurotypical population to develop an interest in STEM subjects. This may also explain why a higher percentage of people with Autism later choose to study these subjects in higher education.

As part of Autism Acceptance week, we are keen to celebrate the iconic names in STEM who are confirmed to be on the Autism Spectrum (or in the historical cases, were strongly suspected to be).

Chris Packham

Perhaps best known for his role as a presenter on Countryfile, Chris Packham is a naturalist, wildlife photographer, and patron of the National Autism Society amongst other things.

Diagnosed as being on the Autism Spectrum at the age of 45, Packham has since featured in several documentaries on how the autistic mind works, allowing the public to witness his journey of self-discovery following his diagnosis.
A keen advocate for promoting the strengths that certain traits of Autism Spectrum Disorder brings, Packham wrote the following on his blog in 2017:

“Many of us have skills to invent solutions, produce art and science to benefit all and to receive these gifts all we need in return is understanding, tolerance and acceptance. For all autistic people it mustn’t any longer be about what we can’t do, it’s got to be about what we can do”.

Elon Musk

Born in 1971, Elon Musk studied Physics and Economics at university before embarking on a hugely varied and successful career. Some of his best-known achievements to date include being the co-founder of PayPal, the founder of SpaceX - a company creating spacecrafts and launch vehicles - and the chief executive officer at Tesla, an innovative manufacturing company.

Musk announced in 2021 while presenting Saturday Night Live that he was the first known person with Asperger’s Syndrome to do so.

In 2013, the publication of the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) outlined that Asperger’s syndrome no longer required a separate diagnosis and would instead be absorbed by the broader term, Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Temple Grandin

Renowned animal behaviourist Temple Grandin has been a professor in animal science for the last two decades. In addition to her work as a scientist, Grandin has become a prominent figure in representing neurodivergent women in STEM.

Keen to share her own experiences of life as a person on the Autism Spectrum, Grandin has published many books providing great insight into the challenges and successes that living with Autism can bring.

Despite not speaking until the age of four, Grandin went on to succeed in her time in education thanks in part to early speech intervention. She does however explain her cautiousness about the current education system and the impact it could have on those children with Autism Spectrum Disorder explaining “Rigid academic and social expectations could wind up stifling a mind that, while it might struggle to conjugate a verb, could one day take us to distant stars”.

Autism as a construct did not appear until the 1940's when Leo Kanner first described classic autistic syndrome. Since then research and studies have allowed for a greater understanding and awareness of autism. This greater understanding of Autism Spectrum Disorder has caused many to look back upon personality traits of individuals, particularly in STEM related fields, to determine whether or not they may have had autism or, as the case may be, not. Therefore it is important to emphasise that though the historical figures below, and others, may well have had autism we will never be able to determine the validity of such claims.

Benjamin Banneker

Due to being alive during the 18th century, Benjamin Banneker was not formally diagnosed as being on the Autism Spectrum. However, he displayed many traits such as intense fixations leading to inventions, which would likely lead to a diagnosis if he were alive today.

Banneker became an expert in astronomy, and even predicted the solar eclipse in 1789. His genius however extended far beyond astronomy, Banneker was also known for being an author, inventor, and naturalist. This led to him being acknowledged as the first African American scientist.

Barbara McClintock

As she was born in the earlier parts of the 21st Century, and died before Autism Spectrum Disorders in women were fully researched or addressed, Barbara McClintock is another who was never diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder during her lifetime. That being said, she did display a number of characteristics and traits associated with a diagnosis. McClintock had an extreme fixation on her work and was able to remain focussed on her work for extended periods of time. Furthermore she was said to be most happy in her own company

 

Barbara McClintock was a renowned American scientist and cytogeneticist. She is most well known for her breakthrough in chromosomes and how they change during reproduction. Although initially her work was widely criticised, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1983 and remains the only woman to have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology on her own!

Albert Einstein

Finally we come to one of the most renowned theoretical physicists in history, Albert Einstein. Einstein is another great STEM figure who, although never formally diagnosed, is widely thought to have had Autism Spectrum Disorder. This is due to delayed speech in childhood, fixation on his interests and particularity with regards to clothing. 

Einstein is best known for his work developing the theory of relativity as well as in his contributions to the development of the theory of quantum mechanics.  The equation 'E=MC squared' is perhaps the most famous equation and in 1922 he was awarded the 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics.

 

We hope that this post has brought to your attention just how talented individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder can be when it comes to STEM subjects and the incredible things they can go on to achieve in later life. Autism Spectrum Disorder should never be a barrier to achieving great things, instead we should aim to nurture the individual talents of each individual accordingly. 

At The Stem Club, we are keen to help all parents support their children’s interest and natural abilities in STEM subjects to flourish whether this is through providing activities that excite and engage, or supporting you as parents in choosing products best suited to your child’s needs. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to us, we’d love to hear from you!

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