Toggle Main Menu Toggle Search

Open Access padlockePrints

Autistic traits, STEM and medicine: Autism spectrum quotient scores predict medical students’ career specialty preferences

Lookup NU author(s): Dr Gareth RichardsORCiD



This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC BY 4.0).


There is a higher than chance representation of autistic people and people with elevated autistic traits in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) industries. Medical students, despite studying a STEM subject, have lower autistic traits than other STEM students. Medicine is heterogenous, covering technique-oriented specialties (e.g., surgery) with little patient interaction, person-oriented specialties (e.g., paediatrics), and general practice. We present an online survey in which 502 UK university students (medicine, n=344; STEM, n=94; non-STEM, n=64) reported their study area and career aspirations and completed the Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ), a quantitative self-report measure of autistic traits. Our main findings were that medical students had significantly lower AQ scores than other STEM (p < 0.001, d = 0.614) and non-STEM students (p < 0.001, d= 0.874), and that medical students aiming to pursue technique-focussed career paths had significantly higher AQ scores than medical students aiming to pursue person-oriented career paths (p = 0.009, d = 0.318). Each of these effects remained statistically significant after adjusting for alpha inflation.The findings of this study corroborate those of previous research reporting a link between autism and STEM; they also provide evidence that autistic traits are a predictor of medical students’ career ambitions, with those students with high AQ scores being more likely to pursue technique-focussed (as opposed to person-focussed) roles. This may be informative for developing and optimising the strengths of individuals with differing levels of autistic traits.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Turner E, Aitken E, Richards G

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: SAGE Open

Year: 2021

Volume: 11

Issue: 4

Print publication date: 01/10/2021

Online publication date: 23/12/2021

Acceptance date: 07/09/2021

Date deposited: 09/09/2021

ISSN (electronic): 2158-2440

Publisher: Sage Publications Inc.


DOI: 10.1177/21582440211050389


Altmetrics provided by Altmetric