What’s On My Mind: Embracing neurodiversity in research and practice

Last week, I had the privilege of participating in a conversation with Temple Grandin, perhaps the most visible pioneer in the world of autism spectrum disorder. Grandin famously overcame a nonverbal early childhood to earn a Ph.D. and become the leading expert on livestock handling and a globally recognized advocate and inspiration for individuals with autism and their families.

Grandin’s life and message are prime proof points in advancing understanding and appreciation for the power that all types of minds bring to the challenges facing our society. At Vanderbilt, we have long been fascinated and deeply engaged in understanding the human brain, both typically developing and atypically developing. For generations, Vanderbilt researchers have been at the forefront of discovering why our minds develop in particular ways, and how society can elevate and celebrate the myriad ways we all learn, communicate and connect. This work is essential to our future. As Grandin demonstrated so powerfully last Thursday night, neurodiverse individuals, throughout history and today, are essential contributors to society’s most important and pressing problems and opportunities.

Grandin grew up at a time when children with autism were often institutionalized; during that same era, the Susan Gray School at Peabody College was founded. The school, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, was one of the first nationally recognized inclusive preschools to educate children with disabilities alongside typically developing children. Today at the Susan Gray School, Vanderbilt’s youngest learners interact daily with world-renowned educational and development researchers while receiving an exceptional early education. Just as we do with every Vanderbilt student, we are educating these young students intellectually, emotionally and socially and are putting our own research in early childhood education into action.

Steps away from the Susan Gray School, the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center has been a leading and respected center of research on learning and development since its founding through a federal grant from the Kennedy administration in 1965. The center’s Treatment and Research Institute for Autism Spectrum Disorders (TRIAD) conducts research on autism while using its discoveries to provide services to individuals with autism and their families.

The Kennedy Center is also home to many faculty affiliated with the Vanderbilt Brain Institute and researchers in the emerging field of educational neuroscience, such as Patricia and Rodes Hart Professor of Special Education, Psychology, Radiology and Pediatrics Laurie Cutting. Educational neuroscience connects research from neuroimaging to classroom strategies for assisting children with learning disabilities. It’s an incredible, interdisciplinary example of connecting deep scientific research to practical day-to-day applications.

Exploring neurodiversity is important for educational development, and it is also driving new research with the potential to fuel innovation in a variety of fields. In early November, Vanderbilt announced the launch of the Frist Center for Autism and Innovation, supported by a $10 million gift from Jennifer Frist, BS’93, and her husband, Billy Frist. The center, which began as a trans-institutional initiative, combines academic research, commercial R&D and business innovations to identify and understand the capabilities of individuals with autism with a goal of enhancing the 21st-century workforce through engagement of autistic talent.

As a leading research university, our strength comes from our diversity, including our neurodiversity. Visit Peabody’s Department of Psychology and Human Development, one of the academic homes of research on neurodiversity at Vanderbilt. When you first enter the Hobbs Building, you’ll be greeted by unusual brick walls. The bricks that make up the walls are anything but uniform, each brick its own unique shape, carving out a distinct space within its wall. The architect who created the building saw the beauty in using bricks that weren’t all alike, particularly in a building that would be home to research on human development and the subtle differences in how humans grow and learn.

Those unusual Hobbs walls are powerful representations of the strength of the Vanderbilt community. Our intellectual and neurological diversity is what makes us a gathering place of innovation. We are each different, every one of us intelligent and creative in our own ways, and we come together to elevate each other’s ideas and discoveries.