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The Frist Center for Autism and Innovation, engineering technologies and transforming the workplace – inspired by neurodiversity, at the Vanderbilt University School of Engineering brings engineers, business scholars, and disabilities researchers together with experts in neuroscience and education to understand, maximize, and promote neurodiverse talent. From a strengths-based – as opposed to deficit-based – understanding of autism and neurodiversity, the Center sees opportunities for innovation in technology and in workplace practices. Distinctive in focus, the Frist Center will develop and commercialize devices, algorithms, and systems both in support of and inspired by neurodiverse abilities. By studying and modeling employment arrangements, the Center will support inclusive organizational cultures in which neurodiverse individuals can manifest their full potential. With engagement across academia, government, business, and non-profit organizations, as well as the clinical, vocational, and self-advocacy domains, the Center will work to build a true community-based approach that improves lives, organizations, and society.

Background and Scope

Funded initially through pilot funding from Vanderbilt’s Trans-Institutional Program and an HHMI million-dollar Professor prize to Keivan Stassun (Stevenson Professor of Astrophysics and Computer Science), the Frist Center for Autism & Innovation has become permanently endowed with a generous gift from Jennifer and Billy Frist, to support the following broad thrusts:

  1. Research, Policy, and Community Coordination — The power of an elite academic research center is the ability to (a) define a scholarly agenda around an important problem, (b) collect and analyze data to identify solutions, (c) orchestrate the implementation of those solutions at scale, and (d) study the long-term impacts. A key motivation for this Center is the vision of a coordinated, community-based approach to workforce innovation through meaningful employment of autistic adults. The Center will serve as the persistent, academic hub for implementation and coordination of this vision. Through its work with increasingly large numbers of individuals, companies, and organizations over time, the Center will develop the longitudinal data, deep understanding, and practical know-how to become recognized as the go-to hub for expert scholarship, data, tools, and approaches nationally and internationally. Through conferences, publications in both scholarly and popular venues, and activity through both traditional and social media, the Center will project visibility and exert influence, grounded in a reputation that is at once scholarly and action-oriented. The Center will be recognized by scholars as pursuing research with rigor; it will be seen by the community as making things happen and getting things done.
  2. R&D and Commercialization — The Center will aggressively pursue research and development of technologies, algorithms, and approaches, with the common themes of supporting autism at work and deploying autistic abilities in the marketplace. The Center will collaborate closely with the Center for Technology Transfer & Commercialization to develop intellectual property and to bring these to market, including spinoff companies, venture capital partnerships, licensing agreements, and/or partnerships with other companies, as appropriate. The Center will possess protocols and systems that enable it to respond to opportunities and to operate with agility; it will be recognizable to entrepreneurs and industry as a place that “gets” innovation and that can move at the speed of business.
  3. Neurodiverse Corps — The Center will “walk its talk” by providing a place where the strengths and capabilities of individuals with autism are demonstrated and showcased in support of the Center’s own work as well as the university’s mission more broadly. Already, the Center employs several autistic staff members (some directly, some in partnership with The Precisionists, Inc.) in a number of its pilot projects, such as: creation of mobile apps for measurement of human visuo-spatial abilities; invention and licensing of data visualization algorithms; development of platforms and applications for Vanderbilt’s new Data Science Institute; and others. In addition, the Center’s executive director and communications director are proud autism self-advocates. The Center will reflect the mantra of the disabilities community—“nothing for us or about us, without us”—by insisting on the direct involvement of neurodiverse individuals in its work wherever possible.

Placement and Positioning

The Center organizationally resides within the Vanderbilt School of Engineering with a faculty director from the School, while involving faculty in the Owen School and affiliates across the university. It is physically housed in Vanderbilt’s Innovation Pavilion, thereby connecting the Center visibly to innovation, and providing visibility and foot traffic for students and visitors. The space serves to showcase the Center’s innovations and its people, including a welcoming staff, interactive prototypes, informative exhibits, and real-time displays of the Center’s work in progress. It enjoys access to the Wond’ry maker spaces, business incubator, and meeting facilities. This location also centrally promotes collaboration between the School of Engineering, the Owen Graduate School of Management, and the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center.