Vanderbilt Initiative for Autism, Innovation, and the Workforce finds fits for the strengths of individuals on the autism spectrum


Heream Yang

In Tennessee, 90 percent of people on the autism spectrum are currently either unemployed or underemployed. Certain social traits of many individuals with autism make it difficult to become hired through the traditional HR route. The Vanderbilt Initiative for Autism, Innovation and the Workforce seeks to work around this social barrier by utilizing a broad field of research to gauge the strengths of these individuals and the effectiveness of pre-employment programs.

Dr. David D. Caudel, the executive director of the project, said that individuals with autism have unique, specific skills they bring to the workforce. Certain tasks that bore neurotypical individuals are practically tailor-made for neurodiverse individuals.

“We realize that’s a real waste of potential because there’s a lot of autistic people out there- a lot of their quirkiness, the things that make their minds unusual, actually makes them ideally suited to specific kinds of jobs,” Caudel said. “We wanted to build a pipeline that found those individuals, tested their characteristics, quantified them in some way and then matched that to specialized business interests. There’s a lot of people on both sides, in the employment side and there’s a lot of unemployed or underemployed autistic individuals, who both sides really need something like this.”

It’s a program where any success is going to make all the difference in the world to someone

For example, Caudel said a job position dealing with trauma carts, which requires the employee to take in used trauma carts, search for missing items, throw out used items and restock the carts, might fit the strengths of a person with certain autism related traits. A slight error, such as forgetting to restock an epipen, could have fatal consequences. He said the problem is that many neurotypical people get bored with such repetitive tasks and begin to make mistakes and slow in productivity. People on the autism spectrum who have hyperfocused attention to detail and exact rule-following tendencies are thus perfectly suited for this job.

For Caudel and many other staff members, this project carries great personal significance. Caudel himself was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, which is now referred to as autism spectrum disorder or high-functioning autism. Each of his three children has some degree of autism.

“We have what they say, ‘skin in the game,’” Caudel said. “This is something that matters to us, so it’s a really fun and exciting project to work on. It’s a program where any success is going to make all the difference in the world to someone, and the goal is to have as much success as possible, to make this as functioning and efficient a program as possible.”

An Autism, Innovation, and the Workforce meeting room located in the Wond’ry. photo by Heream Yang

As a fairly new project that has only been running for a few months, the Vanderbilt Initiative for Autism, Innovation and the Workforce is in the early stages of developing its pipeline. Currently, the center is working with a group called the Precisionists, which specializes in hiring people with disabilities. The first group of individuals with autism have begun a 4 week pre-employment program. The program hires participants as employees. During the first week, the participants work on self-directed projects with Lego robotics kits, displaying their capabilities through hands-on experience. An emphasis on collaboration is placed on the second week, during which participants utilize the kits to solve a specific problem as a team. By the fourth week, they are ready to begin work. The Precisionists strategically hire these individuals out as contractors to various local businesses. This method allows businesses to hire vetted individuals with autism in a low-risk, temporary situation. As these individuals perform well in their jobs, the companies may choose to hire them as full-time employees. The program participants also benefit from this method because they are allowed a more gradual transition into the workforce.

In addition to this program with the Precisionists, various research teams are working to quantify the skills of individuals with autism, such as memory and psychometrics. Research is not limited to science, as professionals at the Owens Business School study approach the issue from an organizational perspective. Some of the various labs in collaboration with the project are the visual thinking lab, visual perception lab, multisensory labs and the inclusive leadership development program.

Spreading the word and awareness about this on campus and broadening it for students is the goal

Alexa Levitt, a sophomore HOD major, is a student ambassador at the Wond’ry currently involved with the project. Having two younger brothers on the autism spectrum, she has a personal passion for the initiative.  Levitt is currently working on an app that will assist in skills testing for people with autism. She hopes to have the prototype finished by the end of the school year.

“I consult the other people on my team, both of who can code, on how to make this technology’s app most accessible for people on the spectrum because that’s where my talent lies,” Levitt said.

Levitt hopes to work in assistive technology increasing accessibility for people with disabilities, and thus her involvement with the Vanderbilt Initiative for Autism, Innovation, and the Workforce provides both personal and career development opportunities. Although there is limited availability in terms of jobs or internships for students to get involved with the initiative, interested students have reached out at and been informed of opportunities and events.

“Spreading the word and awareness about this on campus and broadening it for students is the goal,” Levitt said. “We’re in a really good place and we’re accomplishing a lot, so we’re just moving more in that direction as we continue that progress.”