Special Needs and STEM

Parents, educators, and researchers nation-wide have made it a priority to increase interest in degrees of science, technology, engineering, and math, otherwise abbreviated as STEM. Recent studies like those published in the Journal of Autism and Development Disorders indicate students with autism naturally gravitate toward majors in STEM-related fields at even higher rates than other students. However, students with autism were found to be the third lowest of all disability categories to enroll in post-secondary education systems. Needless to say, educators should encourage special needs children to pursue STEM-related careers, especially since those with autism are unlikely to enroll in college classes in the first place.

One of the biggest problems with special needs education is that educators and parents are not given the resources they need to foster learning. STEM-based toys are just one way to engage special needs children to be interested in science, technology, engineering, architecture, and mathematics. Oftentimes special needs children struggle in conventional classrooms because they aren’t given the proper environment or tools to learn.

Baron-Cohen, Professor of Developmental Psychopathology at the University of Cambridge, argues that people with autism inherently think like scientists because they are constantly searching for patterns that reflect natural laws. He suggests parents who have children with autism should contact universities when their students are 15 or 16 years old in order to familiarize them with university stimulus. He also suggests educators and parents should begin thinking of autism on a different level.

We should think of it as a different way of thinking. These individuals are attracted less to people and emotions but more to factual patterns. We should be focusing on the positive aspects of autism.—Baron-Cohen

Some states including Virginia are following Baron-Cohen’s advice and have included STEM education curriculum that is specific to special needs children. Incorporating hands-on activities in the areas of science and math have produced positive results for both students and educators.

Teachers use a variety of strategies to differentiate content, process, products, the learning environment, and ongoing assessment. The unique design of [STEM education] allow for strategies so that students, regardless of a disability, can access the curriculum content and Standards of Learning.—Terri Webber, Director of Minnick Education Services

Oftentimes young students with special needs, behavior disorders, and autism are overshadowed by those who show promise in one or more of these fields. New resources that focus on behavioral issues, learning disabilities, and autism give hope for STEM education success. Improvements in STEM education will only occur if groups that are underrepresented are empowered by their peers, parents, and educators. Students with disabilities are capable of engineering their own solutions, we just need to give them the opportunity to do so.