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Introducing the Center for Autism and Innovation

Posted by on Tuesday, August 1, 2017 in News, TIPs 2017.

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David Caudel, Executive Director, Center for Autism & Innovation

Written by Dr. David Caudel, Executive Director – Center for Autism and Innovation

The Center for Autism and Innovation, a collaborative project that brings together engineers, scientists, disabilities researchers and business scholars from across Vanderbilt’s campus, was recently named a recipient of one of the university’s 2017 Trans-Institutional Programs (TIPs) awards. Many adults on the autism spectrum have difficulty finding suitable employment, with over 90 percent in Tennessee either unemployed or under-employed. Center faculty are already partnering with major employers in Nashville and leading autism-related organizations nationally to help rectify this societal issue.

Adults with autism and their families often ask questions such as: What is the right job for me? What talents do I have that might not be apparent on the surface? What supports will I need to be successful in the workplace? The Center for Autism and Innovation seeks to find answers to these questions.

The goal of this new center is to learn how the talents of people on the autism spectrum can be better matched with business needs. In other words, researchers seek to identify employment and workplace support for neuro-diverse individuals that plays to their strengths, while filling positions that businesses may have difficulty finding suitable talent for. For example, imagine a job where subtle variations in patterns need to be detected, such as minor anomalies in data that may represent fraud or subtle visual cues that signal defects. Research indicates that some individuals with autism possess superior pattern recognition skills (compared to neuro-typical people) and may be better at such jobs. This new center will focus on research that helps to identify such talents, match them to employment opportunities and develop models and technologies to help accommodate their gifts and needs in the workplace.

Some companies have found success employing individuals with autism. Specialisterne, a Danish company and social innovator, utilizes employees with an Autism Spectrum Disorder, giving them a competitive advantage in business. Today, out of more than 50 employees, they report that approximately 75 percent are diagnosed on the autism spectrum. The Precisionists, Inc. (TPI) is a national company focused on creating 10,000 jobs for people with disabilities by the year 2025, assisting with job placement opportunities and workplace accommodations for individuals on the autism spectrum, among other challenges. The Center for Autism and Innovation is partnering with such businesses, not only by providing testing and a path for individuals who could benefit from such employment opportunities, but also by providing researchers the opportunity to study such programs to fully understand what works.

Billy and Jennifer Frist visited Maithilee Kunda’s lab. They have a son with autism, and are starting a local nonprofit to put people on the autism spectrum to work (John Russell/Vanderbilt University)

Several research groups at Vanderbilt focus on autism among other neuro-diversities, with dozens of scientists working to better understand not just challenges such individuals face, but also their gifts and passions. The Center for Autism and Innovation seeks to bridge these efforts, while also opening new research opportunities, particularly in the study of neuro-diverse individuals through novel programs that seek to integrate them into the workplace. As challenges are better understood, new interventions and models may be developed to integrate individuals with autism into the workplace. Currently, several technologies are being developed to help acclimate such individuals to the challenges faced in employment situations.

If the goals of Center for Autism and Innovation are met, the result will be an improved bottom line for business, enhanced quality of life for individuals with autism and the demonstration of a Nashville model that can be adopted elsewhere. Research will also benefit, leading to a better understanding of how to best identify autistic talents and integrate them into the workplace successfully.

My colleagues and I will be updating this blog regularly with project updates, and I invite you to visit this page often to follow our progress. I also encourage you to join the conversation by asking questions or leaving comments in the space provided below.


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