Polaris Enterprise Leadership Series | Stanford Neurodiversity Project
4:05AM Aug 25, 2021
Lawrence Fung MD PhD | Stanford | Assistant Professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences | child and adolescent
Before a doctor before professional as a parent, how did you come to realize that, that there is untapped potential among, you know, among children, teens and adults with autism,
my son had a lot of struggles earlier on in his first few years with but the main thing is really, my wife and I never give up. And my wife and I gave her gave him a lot of opportunities and say piano it we we got him to the to learn how to play piano and gradually we learned that he actually can play quite well and he actually got got really good that it is not only giving him opportunities, I think the main thing is to let him let him lead let him tell us what actually he wants. His interest is, is probably more important than this his strength at the time of diagnosis, what was your specialty. So I was I got my PhD in chemical engineering and then worked in the industry for seven years and then decided that I go to medical school. And initially, so my my son was diagnosed, I was a third year medical student. So actually, my first patient and Children's National Medical Center is, that's my, my first experience in psychiatry. My first patient acted just like my son. So that's how I got into psychiatry. Otherwise, I would be a cancer doctor, because my PhD is more related to cancer.
It's interesting that development, you know, obviously, you decided to then go into psychiatry. And then you decided to start this this project at Stanford, Stanford neuro diversity project. And part of it I understand had to do with attending. You know, we just did an interview with with Jose Velasco from SAP just a couple of weeks ago, and a lot of the interest was sparked by this SAP autism at work summit. Right.
At that point, I already had some patients that are struggling with finding work and getting dismissed at work and so forth. But when I attended the summit, I was completely immediately inspired by the work that Jose and others were doing. They basically transformed people's lives. They transferred or transformed their lives from someone that has a really tough trajectory, a lot of them stalling to a very productive and very remarkable career. So at that point, I was saying, well, this is really, really good. I'm going to just get together with some of my colleagues, and then we're going to start talking about how we can do something similar to autism at work program at Stanford. And then, very quickly, we got, I found that the special interest group for neuro diversity basically, that's, that's the start of the Stanford era diversity project. So initially, was just a grassroots effort of a few people talking about it, after the summit, and then we had our first meeting in November 2017. So exactly three years ago now. And and we thought, there's going to be just a few of us. We got 23 people showing up in the first meeting without really trying hard. And then every meeting we got more and more people and as of last night, I was looking at our distribution as we have over 650 people In, in three years, and our conference, actually, we had this definitely read diversity summit. Just a few weeks ago in October, we had over 3000 registrants,
those are four years. And then already the project has all these different arms and all these, you know, all these different initiatives going on. So just to recap, but it started as as sort of like a, just a standard speaker series, right, you're having speakers in once a week. And then it just kind of grew from there based on demand. Now there's a research arm and, and there's the Student Services arm, and there's the work program. So it's a pretty integrated thing to develop in just 340 years. Right?
Yeah, and it's actually a monthly speaker series, it's special interest group for neuro diversity. It's a, it's a monthly meeting, actually. It's every third, Monday at 4pm. Pacific time. We had, we have the next one. Later today, actually. And and that basically, we invited people that are knowledgeable in employment, or students support, more like college students support as well as mental health support. And a lot of the time, some of the speakers are neuro diverse themselves. And basically, month after month, we invite someone that's knowledgeable in these topics. And we gain a lot of traction.
A lot of the meetings we they are quite well attended, and people are very engaged.
Sounds amazing. As far as the work program goes, how our businesses and what kind of businesses are involved in the in the projects work program.
Yeah, so in the beginning, we thought, we're going to start with Stanford, and gradually we'll grow out of Stanford because we probably want to do that anyways, because we want to, to have positive influence to our neighbors, just down the street. Since we are really in Silicon Valley, so a lot of the jobs initially are we conceptualize as probably related to computer science, like information technology. That's kind of like the norm for a long time. However, we recognize that people on the spectrum have a lot of different interests, they can be interested in something that is completely unrelated to it. So we definitely don't want to pigeonhole the effort that we are providing. And we work with companies that I mean, in addition to the IT companies, the university, IT department within our university, we also work with other departments. Within Stanford, we got someone hired in the School of Medicine, doing a wet lab. So basically, she runs bio biology experiments. In the lab, we also start working with other companies, other organizations that have various different positions like financial positions. We started working with companies that wanting to hire people that are not requiring college degrees. So we are we're in the midst of really sorting a lot of these out. After this, before the summit, we, we we were really active talking with companies, probably talking with 1015 companies. And after the summit last month, we got like, I think at least 45 companies interested in what we're doing. So we're still in the midst of trying to figure out exactly what kind of jobs are available and just a little plug In January, January 21, and 22nd, right after the, the presidential candidate transition, we will have two days of job fair and reverse job fair. And our goal is to get involved somewhere around 300 job seekers. And so far we have about 45 companies wanting to participate.
That's, that's one of the most interesting things is this neurodiverse job that a bank that you're developing, and I'm curious, when you search for companies to work with? What exactly defines, in your view, a neuro diversity friendly work environment?
That's a great question. The most important thing is to know that the team does in this workplace, embracing the diversity. So they so we need to know that they are trained about neuro diversity. And we need to to know that they are really acknowledging the strains of people on the spectrum. We don't want this effort to be like a charity, or we don't want it to be only about addressing social justice, it is addressing social justice. But it is also about bottom line. in the workplace, in order for people to really sink into the idea that neuro diversity is the right thing for the organization, the neuro diverse individuals have to contribute, contribute in a way that just is can be just like anybody else, in some cases, is even much more than just everybody else. Some, in some cases, there are a lot of innovation. So basically, we don't want this to be an effort, only to get people jobs, only to be able to have the opportunity to work, we want to make sure that there is a true sense of getting the neurodiverse individual to the organization and have people wanting to have that. And a lot of the companies that that are successful in having like SAP or Microsoft, they would really say that the the morale of the group usually increase when they have never diversity individuals working in them is
it seems like it's a key hub for a good percentage of students out there for a good percentage of people out there that it seems to be sort of essential for an educational institution. So it Do you think this should be emulated across the board at institutions of higher learning? Right across the country, right across North America? Do you think it should be a standard thing?
Well, I think it should be a standard thing. We were in the midst of trying to demonstrate that even the Student Support Program, we're starting to collect data. So So I, I don't think I am biased, I think when we are talking about diversity is just a good thing. And neuro diversity is, is a invisible kind of diversity. It's a little bit harder for us to completely embrace. And like racial diversity. You we can appreciate people's skin color very easily. But for people that are never diverse, is it is it it's not as easy. And in order to actually make it happen, it has to be more deliberate. And I mean, this is kind of to add on to your question. Of course, this is, this is really the right thing to do. There, there are so many people on the spectrum, there are at least four or 5.4 million people on the spectrum just in our country, and the special initiatives are providing just about maybe in the order of 1000 or 2000 positions for people on the spectrum. there there's so much more that needs to be done. And it has to start really from the college level, to really get people to really believe that they can really help the students to find their first internship position. Find the for their first opportunity to work on campus. All of that. If you if you're doing if you're doing that, that prepares the students to be able to get into the workforce. And even when the company may not have a formal program, when the students are prepared, it's going to give them the give themselves the avenue to get into the workforce. And especially if the university is willing and able to create bridges, getting the neuro diverse students to be in internship positions in companies, maybe the companies will figure out that these students are really talented, and they want to just get them a job after they graduate.
what a fascinating bro, I'm sitting here I'm sitting here in the back of my mind and thinking about how I will be reaching out to universities in Montreal, sort of attempt to emulate what Stanford's doing. It's just an incredible thing that you're doing. And thank you so much, Dr. Khan, for speaking to us about it today. So welcome.