Archive for November, 2012

Autistic College Youth Gravitate Toward STEM Majors

An interesting study from Brown University shows a much higher proclivity for science, technology, engineering, and math among Autistic youth as compared to the general youth population.  This is good news for autistic individuals.  STEM skills both position our nation well to compete in an increasingly globalized economy, and position autistic individuals themselves to compete for personal income.  Although college enrollment among autistic individuals remains low, experts speculate that this is due to a lack of knowledge about how to access financial aid rather than students’ lack of the necessary cognitive abilities.  Read on for the full story. 

Parents of children with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) received some much needed good news in the form of a study published online in the Journal of Autism and Development Disorders.

The study, co-authored by Paul Shattuck, PhD, assistant professor at the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis, confirms a previously held belief that individuals with an ASD typically graduate to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) majors in college. However, the study also shows that young adults with an ASD have a significantly lower rate of college enrollment, overall.

“STEM careers are touted as being important for increasing both national economic competitiveness and individual career earning power,” Shattuck says. “If popular stereotypes are accurate and college-bound youth with autism gravitate toward STEM majors, then this has the potential to be a silver lining story for a group where gloomy predictions about outcomes in adulthood are more the norm.”

With this study, Shattuck has broken new ground, as this is the first time a national picture of college enrollment and STEM participation for young adults with an ASD has been taken. The researchers compared ASDs to 10 other disability categories for the study. The other disability categories were: speech/language impairment; intellectual disabilities; emotional disturbances; hearing impairment; visual impairment; orthopedic impairment; other health impairment; traumatic brain injury; and multiple disabilities.

What Shattuck and his team discovered was that 34.3 percent of students with an ASD typically gravitated toward STEM majors. This percentage is not only higher than students representative of the other 10 disability categories, but is also higher than the 22.8 percent of students from the general population who had declared a STEM major in college. The subjects most likely to be selected for study by an individual with an ASD were science and computer science, according to the study results.

The unfortunate showing of the study was that young adults with an ASD also have one of the lowest overall college enrollment rates when compared to students in the other disability categories. The researchers learned that several factors contributed to this finding. Playing a role in whether or not an individual with an ASD would enroll in college were factors such as gender, family income and ability to carry on a conversation, among others.

“Clearly, only a subset of youth with autism will head to college after high school,” Shattuck says. “A low family income puts these young people at a disadvantage even if they are cognitively capable. We need to get better at connecting students with financial aid to help them achieve their highest potential and be contributing members of society.”

Shattuck and the research team seem to think they are witnessing a shifting trend in this lowered enrollment, however. They believe that advances in early identification and treatment of individuals with an ASD are very likely to increase their college enrollment rates. By extension, they also see that increased college enrollment will lead to an increased participation in STEM majors.

“More and more children are being identified as having autism,” Shattuck says, “children who grow up to be adults. With the majority of a typical lifespan spent in adulthood, that phase of life is the one we know least about when it comes to autism spectrum disorders.”

“This study is the latest addition to a growing body of evidence we are building here at the Brown School about the needs, strengths and challenges facing this vulnerable population,” Shattuck concludes.

The study–entitled “STEM Participation Among College Students with an Autism Spectrum Disorder”–was funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF); the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH); the Institute of Education Sciences (IES); and Autism Speaks.

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Some People Experience Anxiety And Physical Pain Over Math

As a tutor, I’ve often worked with students who experience considerable anxiety when attempting math problems – anxiety which tends to get far worse in testing situations.   In fact, students who seem to easily grasp concepts during a tutoring session can even go on to fail math tests because of this overwhelming nervousness. 

A recent study reveals that the same brain centers that are activated by physical pain are also activated by the mere anticipation of math problems by math-anxious individuals.  Read on for the full story from Red Orbit. 

Brett Smith for – Your Universe OnlineSome lucky people have a proclivity for number crunching and difficult equations, but for many of us the idea of performing complex calculations is more horrifying than a Friday the 13th movie marathon.

And, like Jason Voorhees’ two-foot machete plunging into his victim’s abdomen — the personal anxiety surrounding an impending math exam can actually cause people to feel physical pain, according to new research from the University of Chicago.

In a report on the research published in the open access journal PLOS ONE, two University of Chicago scientists used brain scans to detect activity in the regions of the minds of people who have high math-related anxiety and found that these areas are the same ones that are active during instances of bodily harm.

“For someone who has math anxiety, the anticipation of doing math prompts a similar brain reaction as when they experience pain—say, burning one’s hand on a hot stove,” said co-author Sian Beilock, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago.

The researchers said they were surprised to see that it was the anxiety that caused these pain-related regions in the mind to flare up and not actually doing the math itself.

“The brain activation does not happen during math performance, suggesting that it is not the math itself that hurts; rather the anticipation of math is painful,” said the study’s other author Ian Lyons, currently a postdoctoral scholar at Western University in Ontario, Canada.

In the study, the team found 14 adult volunteers who were shown to have high levels of math-related anxiety based on their responses to a series of questions about the subject. The researchers also performed additional tests to see if these individuals were anxious in general.

The volunteers were then asked to take a math test while in an fMRI machine, which allowed researchers to examine and record their brain activity. While still in the brain scanner, subjects were also given short word puzzles involving a series of letters, like “yretsym”, that may or may not be a word if the letters were reversed.

The fMRI scans taken during the study showed that the mere expectation of math problems caused a reaction in the brain similar to one found during physical pain. The more anxiety a person had about math, the more anticipating having to perform it activated the posterior insula—a fold of brain tissue located deep inside the brain that registers both threats to the body and the experience of pain.

The work by Lyons and Beilock is groundbreaking because previous studies have shown that highly math anxious people tend to avoid math-related situations and career paths, but their study indicates that attitude is driven by an actual sense of pain.

The researchers added that their study could be useful in treating math-related anxiety, which they feel is different from other phobias. For example, previous work by Beilock’s has shown that writing about math-related anxieties prior to a test can diminish that person’s worries and lead to an improved performance.


Source: Brett Smith for – Your Universe Online
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Beyond Texts and Tweets, Young People Still Love to Read books

It’ll come as a welcome surprise to parents and educators alike that kids are still reading books.  Today’s Internet savvy students don’t see the Internet and other technology as a substitute for books (for now anyway), but rather as a supplement to them.  While 7 out of 10 people have read a book in the past year, 8 out of 10 young people have – meaning the reading of books is on the rise in the younger generation.  The article Beyond Texts and Tweets, Young People Still Love to Read books on the website MindShift details the findings.  Read on. 

In what may come as a pleasant surprise to people who fear the Facebook generation has given up on reading — or, at least, reading anything longer than 140 characters — a new report from the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project reveals the prominent role of books, libraries and technology in the lives of young readers, ages 16 to 29. Kathryn Zickuhr, the study’s main author, joins NPR’s David Greene to discuss the results.


“We found that about 8 in 10 Americans under the age of 30 have read a book in the past year. And that’s compared to about 7 in 10 adults in general, American adults. So, they’re reading — they’re more likely to read, and they’re also a little more likely to be using their library.”


“We heard from e-book readers in general [that] they don’t want e-books to replace print books. They see them as part of the same general ecosystem; e-books supplement their general reading habits. And we heard from a lot of younger e-book readers about how e-books just fit into their lives — how they can read when they’re waiting in line for class, or waiting in line for lunch. One reader in particular told us that when he has a book that he loves, he wants to be able to access it in any format. So with the Harry Potter series and the [Song of Ice and Fire] series, he’s actually bought all of those books as print books and as e-books, just because they matter that much to him …

“We haven’t seen for younger readers that e-books are massively replacing print books. That might happen in the future, but right now we’re just seeing them sort of as a more convenient supplement.”

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Why Kids Need Schools to Change

In an enlightening article on the website Mindshift, writer Tina Barsheghian argues that  school’s traditional structure is outdated.  In order for real learning to occur, several things need to happen: school days should start later to allow students sufficient rest, alternative testing methods should be explored, and more caring school environments should be fostered.  Additionally, parents should be educated to allow their students time for rest, play, and family.  As a tutor, I’ve  seen the negative effects of sleep deprivation, rigid testing methods, and anxiety on students’ ability to perform, and couldn’t agree more with the author.  Read on for the full article. 

The current structure of the school day is obsolete, most would agree. Created during the Industrial Age, the assembly line system we have in place now has little relevance to what we know kids actually need to thrive.

Most of us know this, and yet making room for the huge shift in the system that’s necessary has been difficult, if not impossible because of fear of the unknown, says educator Madeline Levine, author of Teach Your Children Well.

“People don’t like change, especially in times of great uncertainty,” she said. “People naturally go conservative and buckle down and don’t want to try something new. There are schools that are trying to do things differently, and although on the one hand they’re heralded as having terrific vision, they’re still seen as experimental.”

“I’m astounded at the glacial pace of change in education.”

During this time of economic uncertainty, especially, Levine said parents want to make sure their kids won’t fall into the ranks of the unemployed and disenfranchised young people who return home because they’re unable to find jobs. “There’s so much anxiety around the economy, they’re thinking, What can I do to make sure that my kid isn’t one of the unemployed”? she said.

Yet therein lies the paradox. It’s exactly during these uncertain times when people must be willing to try new things, to be more open, curious and experimental, she said. In education, although there are great new models of learning and schooling, they are the exceptions, and the progressive movement has not gained much momentum.

“I’m astounded at the glacial pace of change in education,” she said. “Like many academic areas, there’s a huge disconnect between what’s known and what’s in practice. It’s very slow moving.”

Levine, who was a teacher herself for many years, said she has tremendous respect for educators and believes they need full support from parents and administrators. But until the directive comes from those in power — national and state policymakers, superintendents, principals — what can teachers do individually to make learning relevant for their students?

The Full Article

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