Frist Center for Autism and Innovation

The Vanderbilt Kennedy Center is a partner of the Frist Center for Autism and Innovation.

Welcome to the Frist Center for Autism and Innovation

Originally the Initiative for Autism, Innovation, and the Workforce — a Vanderbilt Trans-Institutional Programs pilot initiative — represents a collaboration of Vanderbilt engineers, scientists, disabilities researchers, and business scholars, together with major employers in Nashville and leading autism-related organizations nationally.

The Center is devoted to: 

  • developing a strengths-based — as opposed to deficit-based — understanding of neuro-diverse capabilities;
  • modeling of novel employment arrangements, management trainings, and workplace practices that fully utilize these capabilities to spur innovation;
  • inventing new technologies that enable autistic and other neuro-diverse individuals to succeed in employment and achieve their full potential; and
  • documenting and disseminating an all-hands community-based approach — including educators, researchers, employers, philanthropists, and community organizers — to enhance quality of life for autistic individuals through meaningful employment.


Our Purpose

The Frist Center for Autism and Innovation serves as the core academic research partner for a community-based partnership that we call “the Nashville Model”. Our ultimate purpose is to advance workforce innovation through the employment of autistic adults, with the Nashville Model as our testbed. Our initial research and development components include developing a new battery of specialized assessments for identifying autistic capabilities and assistive technologies to support autistic individuals in the workplace, working with employment partners to connect autistic individuals with appropriately matched job opportunities, measuring the business impact that the “autism advantage” truly represents, and developing with our partners the Nashville Model — a scalable and replicable community-based approach to employment that includes management/leadership training to adapt to people on the spectrum.


Grand Challenge of the Frist Center for Autism and Innovation

The past decade has documented the potent challenge of optimizing lifespan outcomes for individuals with increasingly common and impairing neurodevelopmental disorders, such as autism (now affecting about 1 in 68 people). Traditional research, educational, and employment approaches have focused on characterizing symptoms, impairments, and documenting challenges related to unemployment, underemployment, psychiatric symptoms, and other negative quality-of-life indicators. With these characteristics well-documented, there has emerged a great need and opportunity for creating, understanding, and systematizing interventions for individuals with autism, in particular autistic adults as they make the crucial transitions from high school to college to employment to career — transitions that will shape their trajectories for the rest of their lives.

At the same time, the advent of the information age and the data-intensive nature of work in the 21st century economy has opened new avenues for meaningful engagement of individuals with innate talents uniquely well suited to detailed, quantitative, data-immersive employment. Indeed, there is in many cities an unmet demand for talented, highly skilled and capable individuals in the sectors such as technology, finance, cyber-security, healthcare analytics, and others. In our own city of Nashville, for example, high-tech companies frequently cite the limited employment pool.

Within this context, a new paradigm has emerged to look beyond the traditional deficit view of autism; to instead understand and harness the unique abilities of neuro-diverse individuals to create systems of mutual benefit in education, research, and the private sector. Indeed, if we can understand and leverage the unique capabilities of autistic individuals to fuel innovation in the 21st century economy, we will have significantly addressed one of the emergent grand challenges of our time.