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Innovating Change

Posted by on Wednesday, March 7, 2018 in News, TIPs 2017.

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Alexa Levitt, Vanderbilt Class of 2020

Written by Alexa Levitt, Vanderbilt Class of 2020

The Initiative for Autism, Innovation and the Workforce (AIW) recently expanded its team by adding two undergraduate students. My name is Alexa Levitt and I am student ambassador at the Wond’ry. I discovered AIW on my very first day, and was intrigued by the center’s mission, which looks beyond the traditional deficit view of autism, and instead, harnesses the unique abilities of neuro-diverse individuals by creating mutual benefits in education, research and the private sector. My personal investment in the center is rooted in my familial connection as I have two younger brothers on the Autism spectrum. Both of my brothers are currently seniors in high school and seeking opportunities in their personal life trajectories. That said, I wholeheartedly understand this issue from both a sibling perspective and from the perspective as someone who will enter the workforce in a few short years. I have found that AIW is unique in its ability to recognize the potential opportunity to bridge the gap between high-tech companies in Nashville who are limited in their employment pool and the unmet demand for talented, highly-skilled and capable individuals in the private sector.

Combining my passion for innovation with my personal investment in seeking opportunities for uniquely bright and capable neuro-diverse individuals, I am developing an immersive experience for undergraduates interested in learning about Autistic individuals and the value they add to the workplace. I hope to demonstrate that neurodiversity should be embraced and incorporated in jobs, and that neuro-typical Vanderbilt students would benefit from understanding the intricacies of their peers with autism.

Gordon Kiesling, a student of Prof. Keivan Stassun, was interested in pursuing a job on campus, and was put in contact with Dan Burger, who developed a data visualization platform called Filtergraph, which AIW is now using to test the visual talents of individuals on the Autism spectrum. Gordon is now working on coding a mobile app aimed at identifying data-analysis and visualization strengths among people on the spectrum and, ideally, pair them up with people who can offer them meaningful employment in a field where their strengths can be best utilized.

“Personally, this will benefit my coding and developer experience,” Gordon explains. “It will also benefit the Autistic community by bringing down the high unemployment rate they are experiencing. Ultimately, the community will be provided qualified workers with sharp minds who are capable and equipped in ways that many non-spectrum individuals are not. We are shooting for win-win situations!”

Many undergraduate students decide to pursue profit-driven work in the private sector following graduation, while others seek scientific advances. Regardless of which job a student lands, the opportunity to perform meaningful work that generates a sense of purpose is crucial for everyone. And while they may face challenges in achieving such opportunities, individuals with Autism are certainly no exception to that.

Thus, despite making different contributions to AIW, Gordon and I are equally committed to combining our passions by focusing on research, innovation and developing skills for helping individuals with Autism achieve meaningful employment experience.


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