What explains the outsized success of autistic applicants to college

Z went to a Duke recruiting weekend where accepted kids can get a feel for the university. He hung out with some kids who decided to go to Harvard and Stanford, and a bunch of kids who decided on Duke. What was similar about all of them? They talked openly about having autism.

At lunch one kid said to Z, “Do you know you have autism?”

And Z said, “Yeah. Do you?”

And then a bunch of the kids at the table said they had it. That’s all. Then everyone moved on to another topic.

Kids are so far ahead of parents in how they think about autism. So I’ve been trying to focus my own research on what makes autistic people so special. Why are they overrepresented among top colleges, top earners, artistic success stories?

OCD means inventive

The idea of disability is contextual, and culture determines what we think is useful. For example, OCD is a label for obsessive people, but expertise comes from obsessive interests as well. Each of the kids asked each other, “how did you get in” or “what was your main essay about?” and they were really answering the question “what were you obsessed with in high school?”

We can also think of OCD as a way to find fulfillment through consistency. For example Z was able to succeed at cello because he had an obsession with playing in tune — which is very difficult to do but fulfilling to people who play string instruments very well .

Also, the process for invention is trial and error. Another word for that is OCD. Few people have enough patience for trial and error to actually invent something. But someone with OCD doesn’t need patience to be inventive — they feel fulfilled even when they’re failing because they focus on process.

ADHD means hyperfocused

ADHD means it’s impossible to focus on something boring, but the ability to focus on something interesting is extraordinary. Among kids with ADHD interestingness is the highest value.

Top colleges look for spiked applicants which means admissions committees don’t want well-rounded kids but rather kids who have a natural tendency to become an expert. Because experts make a community more interesting and they are more likely to place high value on other interesting kids.

Z stayed overnight in a dorm room and his host was a soccer player who just received a multi-million dollar contract to play in England. Z said, “He’s 7’2″ and I almost never saw him because he was at soccer practice.” Other kids might be sad about the lack of interaction but Z loved being surrounded by kids who were hyper focused on their interest.

Dyslexia means information-driven

The type of dyslexia autistic kids have is around reading comprehension. We are great at finding the answer to reading comprehension questions, but we have a hard time with open-ended questions about characters e.g. class discussion. We just don’t care.

While neurotypical people connect to others by narrating daily life or sharing personal feelings, autistic people connect with people by sharing ideas and knowledge. Each group has the same level of drive to connect to other people, but to different ends.

The way this tendency translates to reading is we get the information we need and move on. The way it looks in college is lots of kids at top schools connecting by sharing ideas.

Social awkwardness means social activist

Cognitive empathy is understanding how someone feels and why they feel that way. Autistic people are not very good at this type of empathy. But caring about someone is different — that’s affective empathy which is intact in autistic people. The result is autistic kids can feel empathy for people as a whole but we have trouble empathizing with individual experiences.

This explains the autistic tendency toward social justice.  Autistic people have empathy for the greater good and this makes autistic kids most likely to act in a leadership role to instigate change. When colleges say they’re looking for leaders, they are, in effect, looking for people with empathy for the whole rather than for individuals.

Autistic kids also have compromised person-perception which means we can’t accurately predict an individual’s intentions, emotions, or thoughts. But, like all deficits in our brain, it makes room for our brain to focus on something else. And in this case it’s understanding societal intentions and needs.

Autistic social-cognitive skills are extremely high. This means we can predict the needs of a group before the individuals are aware of those needs. Our ability to predict social phenomena and psycho-social trends enables us to come up with ideas like “social loafing” and “group think”.

Pattern seeker means problem solver

Autistic people are drawn to patterns and the systems that create those patterns. This can be the way a frisbee moves, how tidal waves emerge, coin collecting, or office politics. The need for systematic thinking in society is huge, and autistic people can solve problems because they see the systems differently.

For example, a kid Z met applied from one of the poorest areas on earth. The kid got to learning everything there is about US colleges and the application process, and then systemizing his efforts. He applied to the top 20 schools, and schools that offer international scholarships. He got into two colleges: Duke and Princeton. That’s a great example of how systematizing is a huge advantage.

I listened to Z talk about the kids, and it was so fun to hear how their process for becoming experts. Teaching me about patterns is my love language. I think that’s what autistic kids think when they meet each other: relief, and excitement. And that’s what makes being together at college so fun.

Want to learn more about these topics and next-generation autism? I’m doing a four-day course May 21 – 24 at 5pm EST and I’d love for you to join. The cost is $195 now and $295 in five days. Sign up now. 



4 replies
  1. Sean Crawford
    Sean Crawford says:

    So far, I think the only person shown in popular culture with autism, who happens to be at university, is Sheldon on Big Bang Theory. I only know he “probably has autism” from reading articles in the newspaper entertainment section.

    Maybe there will more overt persons with autism when the younger generation moves up the ranks in Hollywood.

    Being a covert nerd myself, I find it useful to read the entertainment news to keep up with the popular culture of regular people.

    At university, like Z, I was excited to meet other keen students with school spirit, and surprised at how many mundane students only attended because they “had to,” like kids back in high school, rather than for the excitement of learning.

    • Penelope
      Penelope says:

      I have a theory that tons of people in TV/movies are autistic because autistic people are the only people interesting enough to make put in a recurring storyline. Also, Sheldon’s roommates are studying the same topic he is — they always look completely autistic to me, and it really bothers me that people talk about how one one person on the show is autistic.


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