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Dr. Dave Caudel. Executive Director of the Frist Center for Autism and Innovation at Vanderbilt University, joins the program to discuss his diversity story, and reveal the importance of integrating neurodiverse talent into the workplace. Discover how to bring out the strengths of all employees and why work and education need to be tailored to various learning and communication styles.

In this episode you’ll discover:

  • Why Dave always felt like an outsider growing up (11:00)
  • The connection between code-switching and neurodiversity (19:00)
  • How to integrate neurodiverse talent into the workplace (24:00)
  • The unemployment rate for individuals with autism (28:00)
  • How to bring out the strengths in all individuals (35:00)
  • The hiring biases that keep neurodiverse talent out of the workforce (37:00)
  • The danger of stereotypes (39:00)
  • Various examples of neurodiversity (47:00)
  • The need to adapt communication styles (55:00)

Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:

JENNIFER BROWN: Dave, normally I start The Will To Change with sharing your diversity story. So, would it be okay to give us a rundown of who you are, how you identify, what you do?

DAVE CAUDEL: Absolutely. For the record, it’s always okay.

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, thank you.

DAVE CAUDEL: You’re never going to ask a question… I know I’m actually literally physically incapable of… I will overshare. So, don’t ask the question if you don’t want the answer.


DAVE CAUDEL: Whatever that little thing is in people’s heads that says, oh, I should keep this private. I shouldn’t… I don’t have that. It’s caused me all sorts of grief in my younger years. I’m a little bit better. But I have never been offended by a question. I would be astounded if someone could ever dream up a question that could offend me. That would be a revolutionary event.

JENNIFER BROWN: I love that. Make sure that we share. I don’t know if Doug is recording, but let’s keep that one too.

DAVE CAUDEL: To answer your question, I mean, I think my parents knew that there was something off about me probably as young as about three or four. When you start going out and making friends and stuff. When I was in elementary school, I would either have no friends or I would have one friend, and one friend was more than enough for me. Friends were a tremendous amount of work. I would much rather stay in my room and read or play with my LEGOS or write some stories or design some games systems. I was always looking inward and it bothered my mother tremendously because she thought to be successful I had to be out in public.

In elementary school it wasn’t that big a deal. But when I got to junior high and high school, where human beings are becoming more adept at socializing with one another, that’s when a lot of the serious problems began and I started to realize that people understood things that did not make sense to me. People would get angry at me out of the blue and I couldn’t understand why they were getting angry at me. And people would say, “You shouldn’t do this or you shouldn’t do that.” And I would say, “Where did you learn that from?” And they would say, “Everybody knows this.”

For a while there I was convinced that there was a secret school that people had just forgot to invite me in on and people were learning things that I was missing out on. And when I had asked them to tell me, they wouldn’t, they refused. It felt like a big conspiracy. It felt like everyone was insane. That was the conclusion I drew when I turned 13, is that everyone around me is just insane. And then around 14 or 15, I realized they were all insane in the same way.

And so, I had tremendous difficulty in stuff. I understand it now. It’s because so much of human interaction involves context. When we’re talking with one another as human beings, there’s a lot of contexts that we just assume that just shortens our communication. We don’t try to spell everything out. We try to make inferences. And there’s also a lot of nonverbal communication that goes into which I lack a lot of the basic instincts to understand that. A phrase or a statement that could be obvious to most people is incomprehensible gobbledygook to me.

And so people would, they would misunderstand me. They would think, if I’m saying something that’s upsetting to you, you’re used to as you start to get upset for people to see your body language and people to hear the change in the tone of your voice and recognize, oh, I’ve said something offensive, I should back off. But I don’t have those instincts. So, you could be sitting there getting angrier and angrier thinking, why does he keep talking about this? It’s obvious I’m upset. I’m used to people recognizing that I’m upset. He must recognize I’m upset and he must not care. He must not care about me. And then you can get really angry.

And from my perspective, the conversation is going along great and then all of a sudden you’re yelling at me and screaming and I don’t understand what went wrong. This is a very common thing among autistic individuals. So it tends to make you more socially isolated because a lot of people realize that no interaction is better than a bad interaction. So yeah, it was a real struggle all the way up into my mid 20s trying to figure people out and trying to interact because you have to be able to talk to people and get along to have a job, to socialize, to be a part of the community. Those are extraordinarily important skills to learn.

So it was… a good way that I could describe it for a neuro-typical is like you’re a woman, for example. Imagine as a woman you lived in a world where you were the only woman. You lived in a completely all male world where everyone acted male, everyone thought very stereotypically male, and they all expected you to walk and talk and act like a male. But you’re not. Imagine how difficult that could be. Imagine how isolating that is. That’s what it’s like for a lot of people on the spectrum. One of the most common things I hear from people on the spectrum that I’ve said a number of times myself is I felt like a mistake had been made, like I had been born the wrong species.

I used to have this fantasy that would play in my head over and over again like when I was in middle school and I was in the cafeteria eating lunch. I would imagine that a UFO had come down and landed and all of the students freaked out and they all run outside and rushed in there. They’re babbling to each other excitedly and they’re watching this. A ramp lowers and these near human aliens walk out and they just walk right through the crowd and they walk right up to me and they say, “Hey, there’s been a huge mistake. It’s been a terrible accident. But we’re here to correct this situation and we’re here to take you home.” And they would take my hand and start leading me to the ship and I would be balling, just tears of joy as I’m walking with them.

Sometimes I would get so lost in this fantasy that one of the other kids at the table would ask, why are you crying? And I would panic because I’d realize I got too into the fantasy. I was like, I have to pull back a little bit. I was like, oh, I got something in my eye or something like that. That’s the level of isolation you kind of feel as an autistic individual at times.

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh my gosh. Dave, this is so illuminating for me and so germane I think to so many diversity dimensions where people feel they are kind of on a planet by themselves if they look around and we don’t see anyone that looks like us or identifies as we do or processes information in the way that we do. It’s this isolation. When we were getting on the call, you said, “We aspe’s have been training our whole lives for social distancing because social distancing is our norm.” And you were like, “Ask me to work from home. Yes, please. Like twist my arm. I mean, this is where we want to be anyway.” And so, this is so timely to be talking to you I think because you’re a messenger to a lot of us neuro-typicals for example right now who are, as you say, and you say you have a lot of empathy for what neuro-typicals may be going through right now with the pandemic and the social distancing, right? But it’s something that you’re very comfortable with.

DAVE CAUDEL: Yeah. And I just want to clarify, the word empathy actually means when a neuro-typical human walks in and sees another person in an emotional state and picks up off of that and mirrors that emotional state. It’s this amazing super power that most human beings take for granted. I don’t actually have that. Now, I can think about something very carefully and eventually come to an understanding and then feel sympathy. But I should be careful when I use that word. I have a lot of sympathy bordering on empathy because my heart really does go out to the folks. But I don’t have the ability to mirror an emotional state.

JENNIFER BROWN: And have you heard the term code switching by any chance, Dave?

DAVE CAUDEL: Code switching? Could you explain that to me please?

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, well code switching usually we use it in the context of, for example, being a black individual in a white dominated environment and having to switch whether it might be a style of speech or language or presentation or not talking about what you do for fun. Just basically, I mean, I’m an LGBTQ woman and I think code switching around maybe staying closeted in certain interactions means that you’re kind of participating in a heteronormative world and conversation and you’re literally switching. You are switching away from what’s most authentic for you in order to, I guess though I hate that word, assimilate, but it is what it is. So you do this and you made it intentional like so many neuro-diverse individuals need to, as you said, to build the ability and the skill to actually put yourself in somebody else’s shoes and say like, maybe not empathy, but the sympathy is sort of an exercise for you, I would imagine. So describe that to us.

DAVE CAUDEL: Yeah, absolutely. And we do have something similar in the autism community. A lot of individuals refer to it as masking. The researchers often call it social camouflage. It is this effect of trying to walk and talk and act in such a way that people think that you’re neuro-typical and they accept you into the herd and they accept you as a part of the group. It’s something that’s enormously difficult for us because so much of what people do doesn’t make sense to us. If I’m in a group of people, I’ve got fairly sophisticated social camouflage. And if we’re all talking and then somebody says something and starts grinning and everybody starts grinning and they start nodding their heads and giving each other side-eye, I’d start to grin and nod my head and throw side-eye back and forth.

The whole time I have no idea why we’re doing this. It doesn’t make any sense to me. But it’s what I’ve learned to do to kind of sort of blend in, is mask or social camouflage. And it’s enormously difficult for many autistic people because so much of it is artificial and there’s a lot of processing power. There’s a lot of thinking through, okay, I do this and then I do this. Or I got to do less of it or I got to do more of it. Oh their faces are scrunched up, I better change what I’m doing. Maybe this is the point where I apologize because clearly I’ve done something wrong. There’s just so much second guessing and stuff that happens that it’s extremely cognitively demanding and exhausting.

Women on the spectrum often have a stronger drive to socialize than their male counterparts. So they work a lot harder at it and they’re, as a general rule, better at it, but they also suffer much higher levels of anxiety and stress than us. There’s a young woman on the spectrum in my staff by the name of Claire. She has this beautiful analogy. She says that when she socializes, it’s like the duck in the pond. You watch the duck and it so smoothly and effortlessly glides across the water and it looks so simplistic, so elegant. But if you get under the water and look up, its feet are furiously kicking and thrashing to give you that illusion of a soft, gentle glide across the water.

For many of us on the spectrum, that’s exhausting. And after a while, we’re depleted and we can’t think anymore and we can’t function anymore. And so, our meter sort of fills up and then that’s when we have to distance ourselves from people and get away from people to just sort of recharge. One of my favorite things to do now is to get together with a group of autistic people and just communicate. Just talk or even sit back and just watch them talk because from my perspective, they’re using language the right way, which is we speak very literal. We say precisely what we mean. We avoid illusions. We avoid sarcasm, we avoid tiptoeing around. We’re very blunt and very direct. What that means is that I don’t have to do any extra processing to understand what’s being said. I can just sit back and just simply talk or simply listen. And that’s such a joy for me to be able to do.

JENNIFER BROWN: It’s interesting, Dave, about what’s happening with the pandemic and the remote working that we’ve all been thrust into with varying degrees of comfort and familiarity and disruption, is that we have so few verbal, visual cues anymore, right? We are literally… I feel like there’s so much wisdom that someone who’s been coping with this for as long as you have and had no choice but to figure out workarounds in order to get things done, in a way this new reality is mimicking a small part of your day-to-day experience. And I think it’s no accident we’re talking today because what I think about is I guess my default would have been, how do we then show somehow virtually without a lot of the cues that we’re used to, neuro-typicals are used to? How do we capture the nuance when we have so much less data?

And I think what you just described actually, if I can kind of take that sound clip and put it somewhere, it would be, what you just described is literally how we need to get good at communicating. In this world now, it needs to be very literal, it needs to be very clear. We don’t have, some of us don’t have at our disposal the side-eye. We don’t have. And it’s just a very interesting thing to think about, how do we strip down our communication on the neuro-typical side in order that we can be heard and understood and communicate with all of the sort of stripped out nuance and detail. And it strikes me that, boy, I don’t know if you forecast this or not, but I feel like what you’re working on has so much applicability to what’s happening in our world in terms of how we’re going to need to collaborate in the future. I mean, I’m sure that’s occurred to you.

DAVE CAUDEL: Oh yeah. In fact, some of our earliest studies have showed… some of the companies we’ve been working with have been integrating autistic talent for… like take Specialisterne for example, a Danish based company. They’ve been doing it for nearly 20 years now and other companies in the early days that were looking to integrate neuro-diverse talent such as autistic individuals would send some of their leadership there to train on; how do I communicate with these people? How do I talk to them? How do I make sure that they’re getting the accommodations they need?

And that blunt, direct conversational style of say what you mean, be concise, be explicit, they learned all of that and then they went back to their staffs. And one of the surprising things for them that came out of that is a lot of their neuro-typical employees would come to them and say, “I don’t know what’s different about you, but I feel like we can communicate better. I feel like you’ve got my back more. I feel like you’re looking out for me.” It turns out a lot of times when you adapt a workplace to be more conducive for neuro-diverse individuals, everyone else benefits.

It turns out the things that sometimes paralyzes us or makes it unable for us to work is kind of bothering everyone else too. It’s kind of annoying everyone else. You make a work environment more conducive for autistic individuals, everyone ends up benefiting. And I love that. I love that. For me, it helps me reconnect with my species. It helps make me feel like I’m more a part of my fellow humans all around me, that we’re more similar than maybe I gave them credit for. I absolutely love that.

JENNIFER BROWN: I love that too. It’s the classic examples of one solution for one community being wonderful for so many communities. I come from that place in the workplace too. If we make it safe for the most vulnerable, then all of us benefit too. And so, focusing in on that. Yeah, it’s beautiful Dave. And I think, I want people to understand you run the Frist Center for Autism and Innovation at Vanderbilt University which officially opened in July of 2019. It started, as you were telling me, as an initiative, which then turned into a center two years later.

The original goal was for a coalition to come together of researchers, psychologists, business people to the original purpose, to tackle high unemployment rates for autistic adults and the lack of support. And then your staff has grown. It’s such a fascinating job that you have and that you get to do. And I’m sure it’s like, I wonder whether you ever imagined you’d be able to do something like this. But tell us about what thought leadership and research you’re contributing and what are most excited about in terms of what you’ve discovered and quantified and maybe who’s been beneficiaries of that out in the world, both at Vanderbilt but also in the larger world and companies, et cetera. What are some stories you can tell us about that?

DAVE CAUDEL: Sure. If I can put some of this in context. Current research shows that over 80% of people on the autism spectrum are unemployed or underemployed. And underemployed is like, have a master’s degree but working as a stock boy part time or sweeping bathrooms part time. Just a tremendous waste of cognitive potential is what we’re talking about here. Our society for decades now has kind of understood that autistic individuals need help. In fact, if you are an autistic child born today, you could expect from kindergarten through your senior year in high school, there are a lot of programs and accommodations in place to help you adapt and help you cope with the world you find yourself in and be successful.

Unfortunately, when you graduate as a senior in high school, there’s just a cliff waiting for you. There were no programs, there was nothing there. It turns out that autistic children grow up to be autistic adults that still need some help. I mean, I think we all understand that high school doesn’t really do that good of a job of preparing you to adult, right? There’s a lot of things that go into adulting and stuff that high school doesn’t really prepare us.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s for sure.

DAVE CAUDEL: So it’s not surprising to me why there’s such a high unemployment rate among autistic people. Now, I wasn’t diagnosed until I was an undergraduate back in 2009. And when I got diagnosed, it was astounding for me because up until that point, I honestly thought I was the only person on this earth with this kind of brain, this kind of perspective. It would be like being the only woman in the world or being the only LGBT person in the world, right? And then suddenly discovering there were other people out there who see the world the way you do, who experience things the way that you do. It was quite a revelation for me.

When I got diagnosed, I sought out other people on the spectrum. I tried to find them. And of course I was an undergraduate, a physicist undergraduate, so I looked around in the research world and I found astrophysicist and chemist and I found biologist and I found IT people working in the tech field. And I thought, oh, this is normal. Those of us on the spectrum, we have weird operating systems in our brain. We see the world a bit differently. We think outside the box. In fact, I spend most of my life trying to study that box so I could try to figure out how to interact with people who live in it. And sometimes I’m boggled at why they’re so happy and content to stay inside that box.

But I thought this is the norm. This is what it’s like to be an autistic person who, what they used to call high functioning and we now call level one autism. People without severe cognitive deficiencies, who are fairly verbal, who are able to exist in their own weird way. When I was asked to come work for the center and I looked at the statistics, I was shocked to discover that I’m the exception. As I’m sitting here talking to you right here in the Nashville area, there are autistic adults who are smarter than I am, who are more capable than I am and they’re stuck at home in their parents’ basements, unable to get a job, unable to get out there because the one thing they lack that I have is I’ve spent so many years studying neuro-typicals and figuring out how to communicate effectively with them and how to be a part of the workplace and they haven’t quite figured that out yet. And so they’re stuck at home.

For all of us, by the way, this is a tremendous travesty because these people with the right sort of accommodations and stuff, they would be wildly successful in the workplace and would contribute meaningfully to society. So we’re all made the lesser for it. The work that we’re doing at the Frist Center is not, oh, let’s do charity. Let’s help these poor people out. It’s, no, there’s a lot of cognitive potential going to waste. Let’s figure out how to use it and we will all be better off for it.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. And you had also pointed out to me that neuro-typical, it’s not a binary. There is neurodiversity within neuro-typicals, I suppose. I’m not sure if I’m saying that correctly. Can you tell us a little bit more about that too?

DAVE CAUDEL: Absolutely. Yeah. I should define neuro-typical because sometimes people get the wrong connotation from that. Neuro-typical does not mean all the normal people are carbon copies of each other. There’s a lot of complexity in the human condition. There’s a lot of diversity in the human condition and two neuro-typical individuals could have very different outlooks in life and very different points of view and very different cognitive skills. What we mean when we use the term neuro-typical is that they are within a range of human capabilities that in broad terms they tend to think alike. They tend to react to the same sort of things.

Let me give an example that could probably put that in better context. If you were to build an educational system to educate the public, you would want that system to be as broad reaching as possible. If you could design a system that effectively teaches a class or a subject or something like that to like 90% of the population, that’s a fantastic job that you’ve done. You’re able to do that. Our institutions of education through high school into college and so forth can work the way they do because most people generally tend to learn the same way and generally tend to think the same way. There’s a commonality there that allows us to effectively communicate with each other.

This is why a particular movie could be so popular, right? The movie is doing an effective job of entertaining a very large segment of the population. It’s able to do that because by and large they’re neuro-typicals. And by the way, those of us who are neuro-diverse are not entirely neuro-diverse. We’re not entirely alien. There’s a lot of things about me that are very neuro-typical and very standard for a human member of the species. When we use the term neuro-diverse, we’re referring to some segment of this person’s… the way this person thinks or the way their brain operates is so different from the norm that it’s almost in a class of its own and there are pros and cons that come with that.

There are many things that most people take for granted in their communication and socializing with one another that is just so incomprehensively complicated for me to figure out. And they can do it effortlessly, with hardly any thought at all because it’s all instinctual for them. Their instincts drive so much of human interaction. And for me to emulate that, I have to artificially reproduce what they do as naturally as breathing. If you look at me in that context, you would say, okay, I’m severely deficient. I’m obviously struggling with things that most people take for granted. Historically that’s how autism was looked at. Oh, what’s wrong with these people? What’s defective about these people? Let’s try and fix that.

Now we’re starting to realize that that’s kind of the wrong way to look at it because although there are many things that most people take for granted that I struggle with, on the flip side, there are some things I can do very easily, very naturally with little effort on my part that most people seem to struggle with or unable to deal with. In other words, I have strengths. I don’t just have weaknesses, I also have strengths. Thankfully in our modern society, you don’t have to be good at everything. You don’t have to be a jack of all trades to have a successful job and to be a successful contributor to society. You can be really good at one thing and suck at a lot of things. But if you can get a job that caters around that one thing that you’re good at, you can be a very successful and valuable member of society.

JENNIFER BROWN: Dave, I thank you for pointing that out. I wonder what the representation is of neuro-diverse individuals in our workplaces sort of broadly defined, I might just say organizations. And when things are not apparent to that neuro-typical normed workplace, not visible, and there’s such a stigma relating to, and I don’t know if you agree there’s the stigma or not, but the stigma relating to disclosing that because of the impact that it has. We talk a lot on the will to change about bias in recruiting, right?

I mean, there are so many basic biases against certain kinds of names, right? That somebody may look at and put their resume in the trash pile because they can’t pronounce the name, for example. Or our biases are constantly at work screening people out of opportunities and this is what’s keeping out, I think, many kinds of diverse and brilliant individuals because they just don’t fit our norm. And so, do you know, is there any data on the percentage of neuro-diverse individuals and organizations and how do we, in the neuro-typical community, ensure that this diversity is named and then supported and championed and that bias doesn’t continue to kind of knock out such a talented group of people.

DAVE CAUDEL: One thing I want to ask… one of the ways that my brain works is I’m a bit of a hyper-focus sort of individual. I can focus on one thing really well and I can put all of my cognitive load on that thing. But if I try to focus on multiple things at once, I’m useless. So I can very concisely answer a one part question, but a two or three or four part question, I’ve lost the entire thread.

JENNIFER BROWN: So typical of me. Sorry about that.

DAVE CAUDEL: Yeah. So if you want to ask those questions one at a time, I’d be happy to answer them.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. Okay. I guess what I’m wondering is, let me get really clear for myself. Is there something you think people generally don’t understand about those on the spectrum and how can we in the neuro-typical community create a more inclusive culture for neurodiversity? That was two instead of four or five. I’m not sure if it’s… let me know if I got it… I made it easier

DAVE CAUDEL: Yeah. For neurodiversity, here’s one of the challenges. People tend to size up one another very quickly and very concisely and tend to stereotype. Now, it’s not necessarily a bad thing that they stereotype. We have to operate on imperfect knowledge, right? If I encounter you out of the blue and I have to interact with you, I have to make some snap judgment decisions and then kind of go off of that in an effort to try and talk to you. This is just very common for humans and I don’t think in and of itself it’s a bad thing.

The problem is when we try to force people to fit in those stereotypes or when we accumulate more data that shows that the stereotype is wrong, we have to be open-minded to be flexible and allow for that and sort of shift around on that. And unfortunately some people don’t like to do that, right? They have their stereotypes. The world is black and white. It’s very simple. And then you step outside the line, they get angry because now you’re making things complicated.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yep, that’s my job. I can relate to that.

DAVE CAUDEL: And people have to relax and be okay with that. And by the way, I have always felt more comfortable around outcast and minorities than I have the main sorts. Before I was diagnosed, I was attracted to hanging out in groups where I was the only white guy and it wasn’t because…. for the longest time, it was very hard for me to wrap my head around this concept of racism and judging someone based on melanin count or judging someone based on their gender. Like everyone was different than me. Everyone was the other for me. And in a weird sort of way, they were all the same. I would look at two individuals and to me they were so much alike that the differences between them seems so trivial that I used to boggle at why people made a big brouhaha about that.

But if I was a white guy and there was a group of white guys and they looked at me, there was a lot of assumptions they had about me and they would want to pull me into the group. And then when I didn’t walk and talk and behave precisely the way they expected, they would kind of turn on me. I had enough bad interactions like that that I noticed that if I was hanging out with a bunch of black people, for example, they knew I was different, I was the other and we were all on the same page and for some weird reason that felt more comfortable to me. I knew I was different. I almost felt like I was a liar hanging out with a bunch of white people that would think I was one of them because I wasn’t.

But when I was in a group where everybody knew I was different and I knew I was different, for some reason that was more calming and relaxing and comfortable for me. In fact, the first time I encountered a social group that just sort of accepted me with open arms and treated me like a member of the family was when I went to another country. I was stationed for six months in Honduras and the Honduran locals there loved me and I loved them and we got along fantastically and I had never felt so accepting and accommodating and I thought, oh, this is just, it must be Honduras. It must be a part of their culture or something.

But then I started getting deployed to other countries and I noticed the same thing. When I got diagnosed with my autism spectrum, and at the time I would think, oh geez, I have to be a foreigner to be treated like a normal person. When I was at home, I was always treated as a foreigner. But now that I’m in another country, they’re kind of accepting me as one of their own. Now I kind of understand it was because of my autism. Because anything that I did that was off or quirky or different, these people would probably think, oh, it’s because he’s an American. It’s because he’s a foreigner. So they lowered the bar on the expectations of how I should walk and talk and act.

And when they looked past all the little mistakes I saw, they saw I was genuinely a decent, caring human being who treated them like fellow human beings and they responded well to that. I can do that in American now because I’ve studied neuro-typicals enough to where I can interact. But back in those days, yeah, it was a big struggle. And I apologize, I went way off track.

JENNIFER BROWN: No, not off track. I love that answer. I love it. I remember you telling me that story and wrapping my brain around it in our prep call and how powerful it is actually. Those stories of exclusion… communities that share the experience of exclusion I think do bond in a really unique way. Regardless of the details of our diversity, I think there’s a strong bond that does form actually because of our shared experience. I actually really love it. And it bears out in the groups that I support in the workplace, which is, we focus as a company on the LGBTQ and allies’ community, the African American network, the Latinx network, the veterans network.

Speaking of being deployed, we teach a veterans’ leadership program at one of our clients and the veterans don’t see themselves as kind of a diverse… they don’t understand how they might be a part of the diversity effort of the organization. But then we start to talk about exclusion and stereotypes and negative biases that they encounter once they come into the workplace. Things relating to having PTSD, for example, or being very commanding and control or being like, I don’t know. I don’t know.

I mean, I’m not going to list off all the stereotypes, but those are the ones that I think maybe not in detail, but in the feeling of it, we all know what this feels like. My argument is always; everyone has a story of exclusion actually. Perhaps even the white guys that you found yourself hanging out with and didn’t know how to be as men with other men. We actually had a guest come on. I mean, you referenced boxes earlier. We had a guest come on and talk about the man box, Dave, which I’m sure you know exactly what that’s talking about.

DAVE CAUDEL: Oh yeah. Absolutely. It’s been my experience too. The more I learn about neuro-typicals, the more I relate to them and the more I sympathize with them and the more connected I feel to them. And by the way, I don’t feel that sort of rejection and exclusion and the feelings of alone and stuff, thankfully in my life personally I haven’t felt that in probably 10 years. At some point when I figured out how to interact with neuro-typicals and how to be accepted as a part of the group and how to communicate effectively, all of that just sort of fell away. Now I live sort of like a utopic existence that’s fairly atypical for a person on the spectrum.

But I do remember when I was younger and what a struggle that is. And I do recognize that I am the rare exception, not the rule. And what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to make my experience the norm for neuro-diversity. And by the way, we’ve been talking a lot about autism, but neuro-diversity covers a lot more than autism. Autism is just one flavor of neuro-diversity.

JENNIFER BROWN: Please define that word. Like I want to know, I say neuro-diversity from the stage now in my keynotes as a dimension of diversity, and people are listening intently, but I only have like a minute to define it. So could you give me and all of our audience some concrete ways to describe the neuro-diverse community, if you will.

DAVE CAUDEL: Sure. Neurodiversity means that in some way or form their operating system in their brain works differently. I can give you some examples that could help give it in context. So ADD, ADHD, Tourette syndrome, dyslexia. These are some examples of neuro-diversity and there are many more out there examples of neuro-diversity. These are people that some aspect of the way their brain works, it works differently. And of course if your operating system works differently, then some ways in which you interact with the world is different. Some ways in which you think is different and that can lead to those feelings of exclusion and stuff. Because people, as a general rule, want everybody to walk and talk and act just like themselves because that’s easy to predict, that’s easy to relate to.

JENNIFER BROWN: How can we neuro-typicals train ourselves to spot and identify neuro-diverse colleagues, loved ones, team members and support? What would you wish that we would understand and do in order to certainly meet halfway because that’s what bridging differences is all about. What can we do tomorrow?

DAVE CAUDEL: The most important bit of advice I can give to someone, first of all, if someone’s on the spectrum, they may not be diagnosed. A lot of adults on the spectrum go undiagnosed. They may not even know that they’re on the spectrum. I didn’t discover until I was in my 30s. But the struggle can still be there. So, my best advice is that if you’re interacting with another human being and they do something atypical, it seems like they’re being a jerk or it seems like they’re being insensitive or it seems like they’re being extremely demanding or self-centered or something like that, the natural reaction is to sort of push back against that and get angry against that.

The next time you’re in a situation like that, I want you to think, it’s possible this person could be neuro-diverse. They may not intend to be a jerk; they may not intend to be self-centered. Maybe their brain works a little bit different than me. Maybe they’re seeing the situation differently than I am. Just allow that possibility to sink into your head and then ask some very blunt, direct follow up questions. If you’re getting angry and it doesn’t seem like they’re ignoring the fact that you’re getting angry, maybe they don’t realize. Ask them, “Do you realize what you’re saying is upsetting me?” And if they say, “No, I didn’t realize that.” Take that at face value no matter how obvious it feels to you that you were obviously angry.

That might be evidence that they could be autistic or neuro-diverse, and have a frank discussion with them. Don’t be so quick to assume. That’s probably the best advice I could give in interacting with neuro-diverse people. Don’t assume that you know what their intention is. Ask them to spell it out for you. Ask them to be blunt and direct about it. Those of us on the spectrum, we will. If you ask me why I said something, I’ll say something. I’ll answer your question directly. If you ask me, “Do you understand that that’s a sensitive topic?” I would say, “No, that doesn’t make sense to me. I didn’t realize that.”

JENNIFER BROWN: Do you have any advice for how do we normalize this whole conversation in workplaces where I think there’s such a total lack of understanding. And then there’s also so much bias against everything that’s different, every identity that’s underrepresented or poorly understood. What would make the biggest difference in your mind?

DAVE CAUDEL: In terms of the misunderstood or poorly understood, autism in particular kind of falls into that. When I first got diagnosed, I would go to people and say, “Hey, I’m on the spectrum.” By the way, that’s unusual, most people on the spectrum try to keep that secret. They try to blend in with everybody else because they don’t want to be seen as lesser, they don’t want to be treated as outcast. I did not have that instinct. I thought if you understand that I’m on the spectrum, you will understand me better and we’ll be able to more effectively communicate. Yay, this is a good thing.

I would go to people and I would say, “Hi, I’m on the spectrum.” And they would say things like, you don’t seem like you’re on the spectrum or I don’t think you’re on the spectrum, which for me at the time was kind of hurtful. Now I kind of understand what they meant. It’s, I don’t understand autism. I didn’t understand it either before I got diagnosed. What do we really know about autism as a society? When I was told that I could be on the spectrum, my first thought was Rain Man, that movie with…

JENNIFER BROWN: I’m blanking on his name.

DAVE CAUDEL: I’m blanking on the name too, but the movie Rain Man was what I was thinking of. I thought about that character and I thought, I’m nothing like that. No, I couldn’t be anything like that. And so people… we don’t have a lot of stereotypes when it comes to autism, but the few that we do is of these people who are severely intellectually crippled and unable to function in the world. And by the way, there are people on the spectrum who are like that. It is in autism spectrum.

There are the level ones like me who are perfectly verbal and we don’t have too many cognitive difficulties. We’re kind of weird and different, but we’re fully functional in the world. And then there are the level twos who have more restrictive speech patterns. They have more severe sensory issues that could be crippling. And then the level three folks, these are folks who’ll probably need to be cared for the rest of their life, who might have severe intellectual disabilities and severe learning disabilities and stuff. It’s an entire spectrum.

And so, that’s the first thing we should think of when we encounter someone with autism spectrum is that we shouldn’t just assume that they’re completely crippled. We shouldn’t just assume that they’re utterly incapable of working. That’s a false assumption that we should push back strongly against.

JENNIFER BROWN: I agree. I agree. You’ve given us so much to think about Dave. I was so happy to hear, before we started recording, that you said, “Well, my center and our staff and volunteers, we’re all just, we’re peachy right now because Vanderbilt is entirely closed due to the pandemic.” But that working from wherever we are and working in the way that you always work and you and your team of folks, many of whom are on the spectrum, are perfectly comfortable in this environment. So I think it’s just an interesting check on our assumptions about how everybody is experiencing this moment right now and which skills and lenses and identities could come to the fore as having a unique opportunity to teach perhaps what does communication look like in this new world. And if this new world persists, if we never go back to what it was before, how will we need to think about how we communicate and how we include. And it just strikes me that you have some clues about that. So thank you for that.

DAVE CAUDEL: And by the way there’s some precedent for this. Think about texting, with the advent of texting and the advent of online chats and stuff. Suddenly people were robbed of their ability to read each other’s body language, but they still needed to communicate with one another. So what do they do? They invented emoji’s, emoticons and stuff, right? Smiley face, frowny face, the raspberry. Ways to kind of give context to the words so the words wouldn’t be misunderstood. They would say something not being serious, say something sarcastically, that if they literally meant that it would be harmful, and then they put a little raspberry at the end to go, “Look, I’m just gently teasing you. We’re kind of in on this together.”

We had to adapt our communication style to kind of fit that and kind of cut down on this communication. And by the way, I would say for a level one aspe such as myself, miscommunication is probably the number one struggle that keeps us from getting the kind of employment and keep us from being successful in the workplace. Us misunderstanding everyone else and everyone else misunderstanding us. And if we have a conversation where we misunderstand each other, it’s obviously very simple for that conversation to take a bad turn.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, absolutely. You’ve given us a lot to think about today, Dave. I wonder, resources wise, do you have any advice of where to point our attention to as this audience is so invested in understanding and continuing our own learning about different identities because that’s the only way we can build inclusive organizations. So where would you point us in terms of learning, reading, listening, watching, et cetera?

DAVE CAUDEL: Yeah, absolutely. First of all, anyone who’s kind of interested in learning more about autism, we focus on adults on the spectrum. And when we focus on the workplace, that is exclusively the focus of the Frist Center for Autism and Innovation. But people from the public reach out to us all the time curious to know more. Occasionally I get calls from a supervisor or a boss who says, “Hey, I have a neuro-diverse employee in my staff and I want to make sure I’m giving them the proper accommodations or we’re having difficulties and we’re having these struggles.” We’ll talk it out and we’ll try to help them kind of understand where this person is coming from or how they’re thinking. And we try to give them some advice to help them improve their accommodations.

That’s just one example. In other words, I guess it’s easier to say anyone who’d like to know more about autism or neuro-diversity in general, they’re welcome to reach out to us. They can go to our website; they can shoot us an email. We can even schedule an appointment for them to come by and chat if they’d like. Obviously in recent days and probably the near foreseeable future, it won’t be a physical face-to-face interaction, but we actually do a lot of virtual meetings as well. Sometimes people reach out to us from across the nation or even from overseas. We already have the capacity to do virtual meetings. That can be as sophisticated as like an online meeting with video and audio through your web browser or just something as low tech as a cellphone call. We’re pretty flexible about that sort of thing. We have to be.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. That’s right. Yeah, thank you Dave. Why don’t you share your contact info with our audience at this point and then we’ll wrap up.

DAVE CAUDEL: Our website is vu.edu/autismandinnovation. But I imagine if you Googled Frist Center for Autism, Vanderbilt, we’re probably going to pop up right near the top.

JENNIFER BROWN: Great. That’s perfect. Okay, wonderful. Dave, thank you so much for this. You have no idea… I think you do have an idea of how much we needed this episode today of all times. You’re inspiring and you’re patient and gracious and incredibly kind to educate in this way. I feel very, very called to greater understanding and redoubling my efforts to understand, to support and also to become a clearer communicator and open up those lines of communication where I remove some of those biases that I have based on my neuro-typical identity to really make sure I’m ensuring that all communication styles and thinking styles can do their best work. So, thank you for joining me on The Will To Change.

DAVE CAUDEL: My pleasure.


The Frist Center for Autism and Innovation