Vanderbilt’s Center for Autism and Innovation Focuses on Matching Talents with Businesses

/ August 29, 2017

By Dr. David Caudel

About the Author

David Caudel is the executive director of the Center for Autism and Innovation, and he is a solid state physicist who was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome (now known as autism spectrum disorder) as an adult. To varying degrees, each of his three children are also on the spectrum. Though he eventually learned how to function in a neuro-typical world, the first 30 years of his life were difficult, and he wishes nothing more than to help his children adapt to the world they find themselves in. Learning to turn his “disability” into an asset had a profound impact on his life, and Caudel wants nothing more than his fellow “Aspies” to find the same happiness and fulfillment he now enjoys.

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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 neurodiverse 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 neurotypical 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. 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.

Several research groups at Vanderbilt focus on autism among other neurodiversities, 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 neurodiverse 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.

Some additional questions and comments

After reading what Dave had written about the Center for Autism and Innovation, I had a couple of questions for him, and here are his answers.

  1. If a person with autism is interested in working, should he or she contact the Center for Autism and Innovation? If individuals are interested in finding out more about their personal strengths and talents for a workplace, should they contact the center?
  2. Individuals on the spectrum looking to participate can either use the website directly or contact me at if they have any questions. There are links at the bottom of our “Employment Assessment” page:

  1. Will the center’s focus be on individuals with autism who are verbal? Or will you all be looking at way to discern the gifts and talents of those who are not able to communicate effectively?
  2. We wish to cast as wide a net as possible, that’s one of our long-term goals. Specialisterne, the company we’re working with that specializes in training/placing autistic employees, has some experience working with nonverbal individuals on the spectrum, I believe, and they specialize in assessing/training in such a way that does not rely heavily on verbal communication.

As the parent of a son with autism, I also want to encourage you to check out the center’s section on “Why We Care.”

Finally, I wanted to highlight a couple of Vanderbilt Kennedy Center connections with the new center. The staff of the Center for Autism and Innovation includes Julie Lounds Taylor, an assistant professor of pediatrics and special education and a VKC investigator who recently adapted the Volunteer Advocacy Project for families of transition-age youth with autism, and Zachary Warren, an associate professor of pediatrics, psychiatry & behavioral sciences and special education, and the executive director of TRIAD. The center is also partnering with TennesseeWorks as one of its community partners. We look forward to working with the center!

The main portion of this article was originally published in Vanderbilt University’s VU Break Thru Blog on Aug. 1.

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