Frist Center for Autism and Innovation

Why We Care

The Vanderbilt Initiative for Autism, Innovation, and the Workforce was created, first and foremost, because of our conviction as scholars that the advancement of employment outcomes for autistic individuals is essential for both innovation in the 21st century workforce and for enhancing autistic quality of life.

But our passion for this initiative is not simply academic. We are a team of engineers, scientists, scholars, practitioners, and business people who are also ourselves living with a neuro-diverse condition and/or are touched by loved ones on the autism spectrum.

Keivan Stassun, Director, is the proud father of two wonderful sons, one of whom has high-functioning autism and who dreams of becoming a civil engineer to bring climate-change solutions to the world’s largest cities. Stassun brings over a decade of experience running a large astrophysics research group, leading diversity and inclusion initiatives at Vanderbilt, and employing neuro-diverse individuals as part of his NASA research team.

David Caudel, Executive Director, is a solid state physicist who was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome (now known as autism spectrum disorder). To varying degrees, each of his three children are also on the spectrum. Though he eventually learned how to function in a neuro-typical world, the first thirty years of his life were difficult, and he wishes nothing more than to help his children adapt to the world they find themselves in. Learning to turn his “disability” into an asset had a profound impact on his life, and Caudel wants nothing more than his fellow “aspies” to find the same happiness and fulfillment he now enjoys.

Tim Vogus, Deputy Director of Organizational Research and Interventions, is the father of two amazing kids (a son and daughter). His son Aidan has autism combined with a seizure disorder and significant motor impairments.  Aidan’s challenges and resilience in the face of them animate Vogus’s research and teaching. Specifically, his research focuses on how organizations create and sustain more inclusive organizational cultures through more mindful interaction. In his teaching and as Faculty Director of Leadership Development Programs at the Owen Graduate School of Management, he works to develop leaders who can lead more inclusively and more mindfully.

Philippe Fauchet, Dean of the Vanderbilt University School of Engineering, believes engineers and scientists are responsible for solving real-world problems and creating practical solutions to improve quality of life. The School of Engineering has a rich history of discovery, invention, and collaboration across many healthcare fields. From interactive robots to artificial intelligence, Vanderbilt engineers are using these technologies to better understand how people with autism and other cognitive conditions think and learn, which can lead to improved tools for assessment and education. This mission is particularly important to Fauchet as he is the father of a son on the autism spectrum.

Jennifer & Billy Frist, Advisory Board members, are the proud parents of three children, one of whom is on the autism spectrum. They want their son to be able to reach his fullest potential and have the opportunity to find meaningful and productive employment. Many autistic individuals have different talents and abilities that our current testing standards, modes of operation, and models of employment cannot identify or comprehend. But when specific abilities are tapped into, these individuals can often provide a different way of approaching, identifying and decoding the work tasks set out before them. By matching employees to well suited tasks, the rates of productivity rise, the degree of error lowers, and the job turnover rate decreases. The optics of hiring people with different abilities also raises morale among the entire employee pool by changing the culture of the corporate workforce into a more inclusive, more satisfying, and more productive environment. The Frists are especially excited that the Vanderbilt Initiative for Autism, Innovation, and the Workforce will help identify these unique talents and gifts. This new mindset of employability, combined with innovation in the workplace, will help pave the way to incorporate this untapped work potential into employment arrangements that are mutually beneficial to the employee and the employer.