Engineering Technologies and Transforming the Workplace – Inspired by Neurodiversity

by Keivan G. Stassun, PhD, Vanderbilt University Frist Center for Autism & Innovation


Autism now represents nearly 2 percent of all people, and every year in communities across the nation more than 50,000 children with autism become autistic adults who are unemployed. Drexel’s Autism Institute estimates a half-million youth on the autism spectrum are entering adulthood over the next decade. Ironically, this is happening at the same time that many businesses struggle to identify workforce talent for innovation. Despite having talents in demand by employers, Drexel’s and other studies find that adults on the autism spectrum experience an under- and unemployment rate of 80%.

Vanderbilt University’s Frist Center for Autism & Innovation seeks to address this problem through a novel, community-based employment pipeline model that assesses individuals’ strengths, prepares them for the workplace, and connects them to sustained, meaningful employment opportunities matched to their talents. From a strengths-based – as opposed to deficit-based – understanding of autism and neurodiversity, the Center for Autism & Innovation sees opportunities for innovation in technology and in workplace practices.

Primary areas of focus for the Frist Center’s work include: inventing and commercializing new technologies that enable autistic and other neurodiverse people to gain employment, succeed at work, and achieve their full potential; studying and understanding neurodiverse capabilities, and inventing and commercializing algorithms and systems that are inspired by those capabilities; developing policies, tools, trainings, and workplace practices that recognize and enlist neurodiverse people and talents in the workforce; demonstrating, documenting, and disseminating a community-based approach—including employers, self-advocates, researchers, policy makers, agencies, and organizations—to simultaneously enhance the bottom line for business and the quality of life for autistic individuals.

One example of the Frist Center’s work to develop supportive technologies is a virtual-reality based driving simulator that helps autistic adults learn how to drive so that they can reliably get to work and hold down a job. Another example is an adaptive, natural-language and eyegaze-tracking based system to prepare autistic individuals for real-life job interviews.

Recently, Anderson Cooper of the CBS News show 60 Minutes visited the Frist Center and learned firsthand how many autistic individuals have superior visuospatial abilities, meaning the ability to recognize patterns, detect discrepancies, and perform tasks with speed and accuracy. The block design test that was shown in the episode is a type of cognitive assessment—a short test that we can give people to measure how well they can use a particular type of mental skill or ability. In the block design test, you are given a pile of colored blocks, and you have to rearrange the blocks to match a target design. This test might look easy, but trust me—or trust Anderson Cooper!—it’s harder than it looks.

Most of the time, people’s problem-solving strategies are hidden. We can watch while someone thinks about a math problem, but we cannot see what is going on inside their head. However, for certain tasks like block design, we can watch people’s behaviors to get clues as to how they might be thinking through the problem. This is where technology comes in. The assessment we are developing for visual problem-solving abilities uses sensors, like cameras and eye trackers, to record people’s behaviors while they solve block design test problems. Cameras can help us record a person’s physical actions during the test, like which blocks they move, in what order, and how fast. A wearable eye tracker can help us record a person’s gaze: where they look while solving each problem.

In the 60 Minutes episode, Anderson Cooper goes head to head with one of the Frist Center’s autistic staff members and experiences firsthand just how formidable the autism advantage can be when it comes to detail-oriented problem-solving challenges. It is a fun and humorous exchange, but the science and technology are very real and quite seriously focused on helping autistic people understand and demonstrate their abilities to themselves as well as to their potential employers.

Once a company understands just how much of an asset a neurodiverse workforce can be, it becomes easier to understand that the modest cost of the workplace accommodations many autistic people need to be successful at work is nothing compared to the tremendous value these individuals can bring to the enterprise. A growing number of major companies are making a focused effort to hire and support autistic employees. Examples include Ernst & Young, SAP, Microsoft, as well as specialized companies that work exclusively with autistic people such as Autonomy Works and Auticon.

One important job creation partner for the Frist Center is The Precisionists, Inc., a company dedicated to creating 10,000 jobs for people with disabilities by the year 2025, by providing industry best practices for delivering administrative and technology services performed through teams which include individuals with disabilities. I highlight TPI here because their unique business model involves partnering with other companies to identify and define appropriate job roles through which autistic people can improve a company’s bottom line. With TPI we can work with your business to figure out the best opportunities to engage neurodiverse talent, then work with the Frist Center’s College Autism Network to source that talent and provide individuals with upskilling (both soft and hard skills) using our specially engineered tools to be fully ready to get to work and perform on the job.

By making a commitment to support a neurodiverse workforce with technology and workplace practices, we can all do our part to improve quality of life for the millions of autistic adults who seek meaningful work. And at the same time improving society and the economy through the engagement of a uniquely talented – and largely overlooked – talent pool.

About Keivan Stassun, PhD
Keivan Stassun is an astrophysicist whose research on stars and exoplanets has been published more than 400 times in academic journals. He also holds two patents – for a data visualization platform and an asteroid mining system – both invented with a team of neurodiverse students. The parent of an autistic teenager, and with the generous endowment support of the Frist family, in 2018 Stassun launched the Frist Center for Autism & Innovation at Vanderbilt, focused on engineering technologies and transforming workplaces, in support of and inspired by neurodiversity. Stassun has served on the National Science Foundation’s Committee for Equal Opportunity in Science and Engineering and has served as an expert witness to the US House of Representatives Committee on Science and Technology. He is a recipient of the American Physical Society’s Nicholson Medal for Human Outreach, and he is an elected Fellow of the American Physical Society, American Astronomical Society, and American Association for the Advancement of Science. Stassun is the recipient of a $1 million HHMI Professor award, was named Mentor of the Year by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and was honored by the White House with a Presidential Award for Excellence in Science and Engineering Mentoring. Most recently, the Frist Center for Autism & Innovation was selected as the recipient of the 2021 Edward M. Kennedy Community Service Award from the American Association for Access, Equity, and Diversity.