By Katie Bahr
“It’s 2020, and there’s almost no data on autistic people in the workplace,” said Tim Vogus, deputy director of the Frist Center for Autism and Innovation.
The Brownlee O. Currey, Jr., Professor of Management at Vanderbilt’s Owen School of Management, Vogus’ research on making health care delivery safer has gained national recognition. In his leadership role in the Frist Center, he’s hoping to shift his focus to improving the workplace for people on the autism spectrum.
The Frist Center for Autism and Innovation opened last fall as an interdisciplinary effort to understand and promote neurodiverse talent. The center brings together researchers and professionals in the fields of engineering, psychology, medicine, and astrophysics to hone in on the unique talents individuals on the autism spectrum can offer.
“Autism and innovation are not usually things that are put together. Autism is usually framed as a deficit instead of a difference,” Vogus said. “But companies committed to innovation need employees that think about the world in different ways. Neurodiverse people, people on the autism spectrum, offer that. They bring a difference in thinking and novel ways of seeing problems that are helpful.”
Right away, Vogus rattles off multiple success examples of people associated with the Frist Center, including Dan Burger, a researcher on the spectrum who developed an algorithm that processes data in a unique way which helps identify new planets. NASA has already started using Burger’s software.
While there have been significant gains in early education for children on the autism spectrum in the last 20 years, little to no support exists for facilitating neurodiverse individuals in the workplace. By some estimates, a whopping 80 percent of individuals on the spectrum are unemployed.
“The school systems have come a long way, but that support drops off a cliff when you enter adulthood,” Vogus said. “These are people with college degrees, with verifiable skills who should not be unemployed at upwards of 80 percent.”
The Frist Center ultimately aims to help reduce that percentage with a three-pronged approach: 1) help neurodiverse individuals understand and adapt for challenges, 2) identify unique skills neurodiverse individuals can offer and industries and roles where those skills make key impacts, and 3) inform employers about ways they can modify work systems and environments to even the playing field for people on the spectrum.
Vogus’s research focuses on this last facet: shifting perspectives within the workplace to create an environment which helps all employees — including neurodiverse employees — thrive. It dovetails neatly with his work in health organizations on shifting culture and practices to promote safety.
“There are really simple adaptations that research shows benefit autistic individuals, like making minor environmental accommodations in regard to sound by providing noise-cancelling headphones, or in lighting by eliminating florescent bulbs,” Vogus said. “Employers can also adapt basic processes like interviewing, by providing applicants with questions ahead of time or using other assessments or work sampling and portfolio approaches to assess skills. That can help make the workplace more inclusive and more productive.”
Interviews and performance evaluations in particular often disadvantage people on the spectrum, as they rely heavily on networking and complex social interactions. Vogus works with companies to try to identify the root skills necessary for job success and find new ways to measure those skills that cut out the bias to social adeptness. For vital skills that are inherently social, like teamwork and presentation techniques, Vogus suggests redesigning existing processes to make them clearer and more concrete and using technology to narrow the gap for the neurodiverse.
“Collaborating and communicating in a virtual environment is much easier for people on the spectrum, because it reduces some of the stresses and complexities of social interaction, and there are so many tools that facilitate that kind of teamwork in a virtual environment,” Vogus said. “Those technologies are changing the world, and companies using them more broadly would be a big benefit.”
The kind of tools Vogus references — project management and communication software like Basecamp, Trello, and Slack — have transformed the way that technology companies and some of the leading business innovators integrate their workplaces. Developed for overall productivity, these tools can help neurodiverse employees bring their talents to the forefront.
“Fifty thousand children with autism become adults with autism every year,” Vogus said. “And those are people just entering the workforce. What about all the people who are undiagnosed or undisclosed? We just don’t know the scope. The bottom line is that understanding how to make these adaptations is not just a way to bring a new diversity segment into the workplace. It’s a way to improve the workplace.”
The Frist Center helps demonstrate the strengths of autistic talent by employing several staff members on the spectrum and placing them at the forefront of research. In fact, every member of the center’s leadership team has a personal connection to someone with autism, including Vogus.
“My son Aidan was diagnosed when he was three,” Vogus said. “He’s now 17. Being his father has changed my life and informed my research in multiple different ways. It’s really kept front and center for me the importance of gaining perspective and capturing the voice of people in this community. My work leans heavily on interviewing, surveying, and even collaborating with people on the spectrum to understand their experiences in the workplace.”
Individuals can visit the Frist Center on the first floor of the Wond’ry of Vanderbilt’s School of Engineering to access assessment tools, light testing, and employment resources. Companies and non-profits looking to partner with the Frist Center should contact associate director Dave Caudel (firstname.lastname@example.org).