Unlike my previous interviews focusing primarily on autism research, I wanted to change things up and address the lack of neurodiversity in the workplace and what some organizations and universities are doing to develop new programs that address this issue. A staggering 75% of adults with autism are unemployed. The Frist Center for Autism and Innovation at Vanderbilt University is looking to change that. I recently spoke with Dr. Keivan Stassun, a professor of physics and astronomy at Vanderbilt University and the director of the Frist Center, made up of a collaboration of Vanderbilt scientists, researchers, engineers, and business leaders. The Frist Center aims to develop a strengths-based understanding of neuro-diverse capabilities, model employment arrangements, management training and practices that utilize those capabilities, and to invent new technologies that enable individuals with autism to succeed in employment and in their careers.
The Real Spectrum: I have to ask, you are a professor and leader in physics and astronomy, how did you come to find yourself as the director of a center focused on helping people on the autism spectrum?
Dr. Keivan Stassun: Personally, I have a son who is on the autism spectrum who is almost 16 now but when he was first diagnosed at age 4, I started wondering what his future might look like. As it happened, I was running an astrophysics lab at Vanderbilt and I got to meet many students on the spectrum at the University. I thought well this could be a great opportunity to learn more about the experiences of autistic adults and an opportunity for me to figure out how I can create a more inclusive work environment to those on the spectrum. I started recruiting autistic students into my research lab and the results of research we found were extraordinary. We even created algorithms that NASA is utilizing today. All of that led me to realize that there really is something about neurodiversity and inclusion that could be beneficial to individuals on the spectrum but also advances innovation.
What is your vision for the Frist Center for Autism and Innovation?
I’ll answer it this way. The mission of the Frist Center is really two-fold, and you can think of one part as laying in engineering and the other in business. On the engineering side, we are designing, inventing, and commercializing advanced technologies that’s purpose is to support autistic adults in getting a job and being successful in their work. For example, we know that 3⁄4 of autistic adults don’t drive a car and that can be a major impediment to getting a job and getting to work. So, we developed a virtual reality-based driving instruction system to help autistic adults gain that independence and transportation but with the motivation of getting to work and holding down that job. Additionally, we are developing an eye-tracker based system for evaluating individuals’ visual cognitive abilities or their problem solving abilities so even if you have someone who is less verbal, we still have a way of assessing their abilities with problem solving, pattern recognition, etc. So those are some examples on the engineering side. On the business side of this mission, we are working with companies to transform their workplaces to be more neurodiversity-friendly. We are working with managers to teach them about autism and the kinds of accommodations that autistic people may need in the workplace to be successful. The long term goal is to dramatically improve employment opportunities for autistic adults.
You mentioned the center is focused on career development and employment, but what is the science teaching you about autism? Are you also doing research?
My own research is really around successful models for how autistic people can be supported in becoming a part of science and engineering research teams. Since I run an astrophysics research lab, we do everything from analyzing NASA data to finding planets in other solar systems to designing and launching small satellites. The question for me is, “what do I need to do in terms of the structure of my lab and how we mentor our junior colleagues and how we create a more inclusive lab?” I have to think about the different things we need to do so that autistic people can bring their talents, feel accomodated, and contribute in every way they can to the work.
How are you helping to educate employers about autism and finding diversity and inclusion within their workforce?
When it comes to educating employers, at the Frist Center, we’ve been partnering with some other organizations that have been doing a really good job in creating educational material for employers. One that I’ll mention is Uptomize. We have worked with them to co-create some of the modules – short resources that business leaders, human resources professionals, and others can go through to become more educated. We have also created an entire online curriculum that we call Autism Career Empowerment (or ACE) and the purpose of this is to provide resources for college faculty to provide students with ASD with productive career counseling for success in future employment.