There’s a stereotype about being autistic, one that claims autistic folk are utterly brilliant STEM geniuses with a large heaping of social obliviousness. It’s so pervasive in movies and TV that I never even imagined I might be autistic myself.
You see, I don’t fit the stereotype. I’m not some once in a lifetime math genius. In fact, I failed pre-algebra! I don’t have a perfect memory for details. I’m not a brilliant scientist. And while social cues are hard for me, I learned how to read a situation and mimic the people around me to fit in. I can mask my autistic traits, and mask well. So for years I thought that no, no way, I can’t possibly be autistic.
Cue my surprise when I was diagnosed later in life.
I’m sure some people meet that stereotype. The problem isn’t necessarily the stereotype itself, but rather how it’s used so often and so consistently that it’s branded into public opinion as the way autism looks. In reality, we look so many ways and have so many different ways of being.
That said, I do have a large appreciation of STEM. I love all things space science. I am fascinated by watching things get built. Furthermore, I adore how STEM can be used to engage students.
One thing I noticed during my time as a robotics/engineering teacher was that many neurodivergent kids really took to my classes. There was something about the hands-on activities, the room for movement, the freedom for creative thinking and problem solving. It let students shine, especially students who struggled in more traditional classrooms.
I love it so much that I wrote THE TROUBLE WITH ROBOTS, an entire middle grade contemporary story about two opposite girls trying to work together and save their robotics team. I wanted to share that love of STEM education as far as I could, and a fun book seemed like a great way to draw kids in.
It was partway through working on ROBOTS when I learned I was autistic. Then, later, as I was working on developmental edits, I realized the main character Evelyn shared enough of my habits that she, too, read as autistic. I ended up leaning into this, making her openly autistic and giving her many of the same visible stims and habits I have, as well as my sound sensitivity.
That was when I came across a conundrum. Evelyn is autistic, like me. She’s into STEM, like me. Would readers think she’s just another autistic stereotype? Yet another portrayal of that socially oblivious STEM genius that we already see so often in media? I fretted over this on and off for weeks, until the answer hit me.
No. Of course not! Just like I have far more nuance than the stereotypes, so does Evelyn. It’s true that robotics is her passion. She’s good at it, which makes sense considering how much time she spends engaging with it. Robotics gives her a chance to shine, like it did for so many of my neurodivergent students.
But it also challenges her. She’s not some perfect STEM genius. There’s areas she really struggles with, like programming and driving the bot. Her build ideas don’t always work, and her robot falls apart. Furthermore, she gets herself stuck, getting so focused on one design idea that she doesn’t always consider the other options. At the end of the day, she can’t do it alone.
That’s another area the stereotype ignores. We often see the stereotype portraying a lone STEM genius, solving impossible problems all on their own, but that rarely reflects reality. Science, technology, engineering, and math careers are so often built on teamwork, and very few engineers succeed without being part of a team. This is true for Evelyn as well. She needs her team, but doesn’t quite know how to make teamwork happen.
One of her biggest challenges in the story is learning how to step back and let her team in, so that the others can help in the areas she struggles. It’s a tough concept for kids, neurodivergent or not. In my teamwork heavy engineering/robotics classes, it was 100% the thing students struggled with the most.
Yet just like STEM opens up many opportunities for hands-on learning and movement, so too does it foster a fantastic environment for learning teamwork skills. Like in ROBOTS, teamwork can be difficult, but is absolutely critical. As students complete STEM projects, they often find themselves learning how to communicate with their teammates, how to let each other’s strengths shine through, and how to rely on each other to get the work done.
For neurodivergent kids like Evelyn, who have experienced many painful moments in social situations, teamwork might seem very intimidating. Yet STEM classes have the ability to draw them in, letting them practice those skills in a comfortable and engaging environment. Robotics gives Evelyn the chance to do something she loves, while learning those intricacies of teamwork.
So, yeah, moral of my ramblings: I love the variety of autistic representation we’ve been seeing in books lately. I love that we have characters who are into all sorts of fields, with all sorts of interests. And I love that I get to write a character who is into STEM, not as a STEM genius, but as a nuanced individual with strengths and weaknesses. A character who loves this subject so much she’s willing to step out of her comfort zone if it means she gets to stay involved in it. She’s not the stereotype, but STEM still interests her and engages her like nothing else.
I love STEM, and I’m incredibly thankful I got to write about an autistic kid who loves it too.
Michelle Mohrweis is a STEM Educator and space enthusiast. When not writing, they can be found launching paper rockets down the middle of their street. They live with their husband and two dogs in Colorado, where they enjoy hiking and hogging all the best spots beside the heater when it gets too cold.