The Vanderbilt Initiative for Autism, Innovation, and the Workforce research and development efforts are conducted by a team of research laboratories spanning the fields of engineering, psychology, astrophysics, disabilities research, and business management.
Dr. Maithilee Kunda (left) explains her research to (left to right) Billy and Jennifer Frist, Keivan Stassun, Dave Caudel, and Kent Kirby during their tour of her labs at Vanderbilt University in May 2017 (photo: John Russell, Vanderbilt University).
The AIVAS lab studies how visual thinking can be measured, in particular by looking at ways to improve existing cognitive tests through innovative uses of technology such as “wearable eye tracking,” a head-mounted camera system that tracks the participant’s eye movements while solving a puzzle. One potential discovery that could impact the work of the Initiative for Autism, Innovation, and the Workforce is identifying measurable differences in how neuro-typical versus neuro-diverse subjects solve complex problems. This could help in identifying talents such as superior visuospatial reasoning, useful for specific applications in industry such as inspecting goods or equipment for subtle differences that could be the product of a defect.
The laboratory of Dr. Frank Tong focuses on the problem of how the human brain is able to perceive, experience, and interpret the world visually. Through the development of innovative interactive tests designed to quantify exceptional visuo-spatial abilities, pattern recognition, and outlier detection, the Initiative for Autism, Innovation, and the Workforce seeks to provide new ways of recognizing the capabilities of neuro-diverse individuals and then matching these capabilities to workforce needs.
The current focus of the Robotics and Autonomous Systems Laboratory (RASL) is to design and develop novel robotic and virtual reality systems for human-robot and human-computer interactions. The Initiative for Autism, Innovation, and the Workforce is leveraging this research and development effort to address practical challenges faced by autistic individuals in the context of employment, such as a driving simulator designed to help autistic individuals learn to drive and a social interactions simulator designed to teach autistic individuals how to engage socially at work.
Several research teams at Vanderbilt work to increase the understanding of autism spectrum disorders, such as the development, treatment and causes of ASD. Many of these researchers are partnering with us to also look at methodologies needed to match the gifts and talents of people on the spectrum with business needs.
The Wallace and Woynaroski labs are interested in better understanding the brain bases of how sensory and multisensory information are processed, and how such processing differs in those living along the autism spectrum.
The Wallace lab has a long tradition of work in attempting to better characterize how information from the different senses is combined in order to improve behavior and shape perception. As a simple example, there is a tremendous boost in how well we can understand a speaker in a noisy environment when we can see his/her lips moving, an illustration of how vision and hearing are continually working together in order to benefit perception. In addition, the lab is interested in the brain circuits responsible for these multisensory benefits, and uses a combination of sophisticated brain imaging methods (EEG, fMRI) in order to study the neural architecture of multisensory function.
The Owen Graduate School of Management conducts organizational research that looks at the leadership, structure, and culture found in the workplace. How disabilities may be accommodated at work is also a topic of interest.
Spectrum Pathways focuses on empowering young adults with autism through interactions with Vanderbilt University students. They learn about community resources, setting goals, improving their health and how to better manage stress. Spectrum Pathways was made possible by a Vanderbilt Trans-Institutional Programs grant.
The Vanderbilt Initiative for Autism, Innovation, and the Workforce currently includes two signature activities, led by Director Keivan Stassun and housed at the Initiative’s headquarters in the Vanderbilt Innovation Hub, that showcase neuro-diverse teams engaging in entrepreneurship and commercialization as they develop innovative software and hardware products for NASA-sponsored research.