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Frist Center deputy director leads $1 million NSF project

Posted by on Monday, October 21, 2019 in News.

Autistic people are alarmingly under-represented in the American workforce; around 80 percent of autistic adults are un- or under-employed. So, when the National Science Foundation (NSF) announced a program that would forge partnerships between public researchers and private companies, the Frist Center for Autism and Innovation saw an opportunity.

Interview ResearchA team of Frist Center leaders submitted their proposal to the NSF: they would work alongside several companies to complete research that would support the inclusion of autistic adults in the workforce. The NSF gave the go-ahead to begin this project in the form of a $1 million Convergence Accelerator Pilot grant.

The Frist Center’s Deputy Director for Technology, Dr. Nilanjan Sarkar, is now leading a group of researchers and engineers who are putting the grant to good use. Their first project, supported by Microsoft, is an interactive prototype of a virtual reality job interview. It is designed to help prepare autistic job applicants for a real interview.

As a user engages with the AI-based program, it takes measurements of the user’s anxiety level and engagement from eye contact with a virtual interviewer. It can also adapt to the user and can adjust the difficulty of questions to gradually improve interview skills and influence the user’s comfort level.

VR Over the Shoulder

Through this process, the researchers are collecting quantitative data that will help employers develop better interview protocols, specifically for autistic candidates. Dr. Sarkar’s team plans to further develop  and refine the virtual interviewing program so that it can capture even more useful data. The ultimate goal is to better tailor the interview experience for both autistic adults and the companies that are hiring them.

To read more about the NSF grant, this pilot project, and the project’s partners, check out this Vanderbilt School of Engineering news story.


  • Patricia K Lynch

    November 22nd, 2019

    My son, Orion is 19 and has autism. We would be interested in participating in any research or classes that might ensue from this grant. Thank you.

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