Frist Center for Autism and Innovation

Assistive Technologies

Human-technology partnerships are central to the Center’s work, both because neuro-diverse individuals often respond better to technology based interventions and because such solutions may be more scalable to the broad population of neuro-diverse individuals. At Vanderbilt, there are four specific directions being pursued that are relevant to this area (see Sarkar Lab):

  1. Robotics and virtual reality for social skills development in individuals with ASD.
    Many individuals with ASD show affinity towards technology. In particular, robotic and virtual reality (VR) systems have been shown to attract the attention of individuals with ASD in a number of studies. Given the lack of resources in the healthcare system and the rapid progress in the field of intelligent systems, robotics and VR-based platforms are being explored to provide behavior-based intervention such as social skill training to individuals with ASD. At Vanderbilt, team members Sarkar and Warren have been working on the design and development of intelligent robotic and VR-based adaptive social skill training systems for children and teenagers with ASD for a number of years. These smart systems include but are not limited to robot-assisted joint attention skill and imitation skill training systems and VR-based social communication skills training system and a driving simulator.
  2. Tools for characterization of individual affinities and capabilities, and for mapping these to STEM workforce needs.
    The goal of this work is to develop new cognitive tests and quantitative assessment tools to evaluate an individual’s visuospatial abilities in the domains of perception, attention, memory, and visual reasoning. Research has shown that non-verbal (or visuospatial) intelligence is only weakly correlated with measures of verbal intelligence. People along the autism spectrum often have greater difficulty with verbal tasks, but many do well or excel at tasks that depend on visuospatial ability. Current tests of visuospatial ability are rather focused and limited in scope, and there has been limited effort in developing more powerful and predictive measures of visuospatial intelligence. Few if any studies have attempted to relate measures of visual intelligence to performance success in the workplace. The development of effective measures of autistic abilities will be critical for the development of effective training programs and interventions, to prepare individuals with ASD for jobs in the STEM workforce.
  3. Artificial-intelligence and visual-cognition based tools for human interaction with data.
    This research focuses on finding new ways to transform scientific visualization through advances in artificial intelligence and cognitive science, especially drawing from the study of individuals with strong visuospatial cognitive skills, including many individuals with cognitive disabilities such as autism. The goal is to incorporate new computational models of how users visualize and explore data into the next generation of “smart” visualization tools.  In the process, this research seeks to answer fundamental questions about human visual cognition and scientific discovery in the big data era.
  4. Technologies to accommodate individual needs in the STEM workplace.
    Research on making the workplace more inclusive for people with cognitive disabilities has identified several organizational factors conducive to employment success. Those factors include leaders articulating the value of inclusiveness and investing in the necessary supports for inclusion as well as an organizational culture open to divergent perspectives, varied means of expression, sensitive to individual needs, and that makes a “business case” for the value of diversity to organizational performance. Other work has focused on the how peers view accommodations in the workplace and the means of garnering support for inclusion efforts and providing managers with the skills and tools to capitalize on differences. Recently, leading practitioners (e.g., The Precisionists) have complemented the academic work on organizational practices, leader behaviors, peer attitudes, and organizational culture by illustrating the importance of physical space and alternative workspaces (and attendant factors like lighting, noise/use of headphones, etc.) as a means of better accommodating autistic individuals in the workplace. However, the research on technology and autism in the workplace is limited, so we will focus on articulating importance, role, and type of assistive technologies relevant in the STEM workplace. We will give specific attention to both how assistive technology can better help organizations identify, recruit (e.g., using specific simulations rather than face-to-face interviews), socialize (e.g., technology to assist making connections), and retain (e.g., matching individuals to tasks they find meaningful) autistic individuals in the workplace. We will also identify the relevant organizational practices and leader behaviors to support the autistic individuals using the technologies.