Envisioning the Future of Human-Technology Partnerships

Jeff Neul, Temple Grandin, and Keivan Stassun at The Frist Center for Autism and Innovation’s Envisioning the Future of Human Technology Conference

The Frist Center for Autism and Innovation (formerly Vanderbilt Initiative for Autism, Innovation, and the Workforce) and the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center (VKC) drew about 100 people from multiple states to the Envisioning the Future of Human-Technology Partnerships Conference, which focused on research and innovation aimed at helping individuals on the autism spectrum gain employment.

“The conference brought together many of us from around the world working in engineering research, development, and commercialization,” said Keivan Stassun, Ph.D., Stevenson Endowed Professor of Physics & Astronomy and director of the Frist Center for Autism & Innovation. “We shared the myriad ways our technologies and innovations can positively impact the lives of individuals with autism and the businesses that increasingly seek neurodiverse talent.

Technological innovation is a prime example of the core partnership between the Frist Center for Autism & Innovation and the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center, representing a vital collaboration between engineers, scientists, business scholars, those working as practitioners and researchers in the autism field, and those providing outreach to individuals with autism and their families.”

This November 29 conference featured three rounds of “Tech Showcase Lightning Talks,” where scientists, researchers, and creative thinkers spent two minutes sharing information about the work they do or the technology they are creating. The focus was on emerging technologies.

Below, a selection of talks from the day are highlighted.

Keivan Stassun, Ph.D., director of the Frist Center for Autism and Innovation and a VKC member, introduced the Nashville Model employment concept and the role of human-technology solutions. Stassun pointed out that nearly 80 percent of people on the autism spectrum are unemployed, and the Center hopes to help change that figure. The Nashville Model is a pilot program that involves the financial services firm UBS and an organization called The Precisionists, which trains people with autism and employs them on a contract basis for work with UBS. The Frist Center for Autism and Innovation is serving as the academic research partner to develop and disseminate the model.

The Center is also a hub for emerging technologies that may help individuals on the autism spectrum get to work and learn how to work in teams, how to showcase their talents, and how to better focus their attention on the tasks they must complete.

One of the “Lightning Talks” focused on the WRaP Camp, which stands for Workforce Readiness and Preparation. This is a program at Currey Ingram Academy that uses a strengths-based approach to help students ages 15 to 20 who are on the autism spectrum learn to solve problems by working on a team. The camp uses robotics to teach employable skills. Faculty at the VKC’s Treatment and Research Institute for Autism Spectrum Disorders (TRIAD) will be launching a “train the trainer” online series of workshops on its Accord online learning portal that will educate the teachers/camp leaders on the WRaP skills and track the outcomes.

A quick session on psychometric apps had Frank Tong, Ph.D., professor of Psychology and a VKC member, explaining how his lab is developing measures of visual perception and cognition. The aim of this work is to help us understand face perception, visual memory, and object recognition. Research has found that facial recognition can be more difficult for people on the autism spectrum, but object or pattern recognition is often exceptional.

The work of Vanderbilt’s Artificial Intelligence and Visual Analogical Systems Laboratory involves studying how visual mental imagery contributes to learning and behavior, in humans and in artificial intelligence systems. Maithilee Kunda, Ph.D., assistant professor of Computer Science & Computer Engineering and a VKC investigator, explained how the research looks at the ways different people choose to put blocks together to match a particular design and how people work as teams in trying to create those block designs.Their research is also looking at developing new assessments to measure visual thinking, often a strength in individuals on the autism spectrum, as well as improving nonverbal cognitive assessments.

Collaborative Haptic-Gripper Games come from the Robotics and Autonomous Systems Labs at Vanderbilt, which has developed an intervention that uses haptic feedback. Haptic feedback means the person can feel force pushing back against his or her movements with the system. These gripper games, detailed by Amy Weitlauf, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics, and Huan Zhao, a doctoral candidate in Electrical Engineering, allow researchers to measure and teach fine motor skills, such as gripping and reaching, which can enhance self-help skills as well as work tasks. Since many people with autism have issues with fine motor skills, such as handwriting or grasping small objects, such games may be very helpful. A second focus of the lab is devising ways of using these haptic gripper systems to create engaging social games that encourage interaction, communication, and cooperation.

The development of a driving simulator for young adults with autism is a project of the Robotics and Autonomous Systems Labs. Nilajan Sarkar, Ph.D., professor of Mechanical Engineering, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and a VKC investigator, outlined how the simulator, which uses virtual reality, can assist young would-be drivers to assess whether they were able to perform the task correctly and whether they were able to focus on the key objects in the driving field. The lab hopes to have a driving simulator open for general use within the next 12 months.

“There was a wide variety of interesting approaches to identify individual strengths and imagine methods to utilize these strengths to develop and promote meaningful employment for people with autism,” said Jeffrey Neul, M.D., Ph.D., Annette Schaffer Eskind Chair and director of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center. “I am very excited that the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center has developed such a strong and ongoing partnership with the Frist Center for Autism and Innovation, and I look forward to working closely with them to apply the most rigorous methods and best practices to best achieve our mutual goals.”

In addition to the research presentations, the day also included a panel of self-advocates and a lunchtime keynote by Temple Grandin, a nationally recognized expert in humane livestock systems and a longtime autism advocate. Grandin encouraged everyone to understand the value that neurodiversity and visual thinkers, in particular, bring to the workforce. She also urged individuals with autism and their families to focus on their strengths, and she repeatedly told parents not to let their son or daughter “spend all day in the basement playing video games!”

The Frist Center for Autism and Innovation leadership and conference coordinators with Temple Grandin

The Frist Center for Autism and Innovation leadership and conference coordinators with Temple Grandin

“It was very important to us that we feature the voices of individuals with autism,” said Stassun. “It is crucial that technological and business innovations occur with and by individuals with autism, not just for them.”

The Frist Center for Autism and Innovation represents a collaboration of Vanderbilt University and Vanderbilt University Medical Center engineers, scientists, disabilities researchers, and business scholars, together with major employers in Nashville and leading autism-related organizations nationally. The Center aims to invent and commercialize new technologies, advance the understanding of neurodiverse capabilities related to employment, and disseminate a community-based approach to enhance the bottom line for business and improve quality of life for individuals with autism.

Janet Shouse is program coordinator for the IDD Health Care Toolkit

Pictured top of page: Jeff Neul, Temple Grandin, and Keivan Stassun at The Frist Center for Autism and Innovation’s Envisioning the Future of Human Technology Conference. Photo Vanderbilt University / Anne Rayner.

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