The Stanford Neurodiversity Project, with Dr. Lawrence Fung | EDB

Dr. Lawrence Fung discusses how Stanford is helping maximize neurodiverse talents and opportunities.

(28 minutes) Dr. Lawrence Fung is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, and the director of the Stanford Neurodiversity Project, which strives to uncover the strengths of neurodiverse individuals and utilize their talents to increase innovation and productivity of the society as a whole. He is also a scientist and psychiatrist specialized in autism, and the father of a son on the spectrum.

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Welcoming Dr. Lawrence Fung

DR. HACKIE REITMAN (HR): Hi, I’m Dr. Hackie Reitman and welcome to another episode of Exploring Different Brains! And today, we’re so lucky to have coming to us all the way from that mecca of education, Stanford, out there in California, the head of the neurodiversity project there, is Dr. Lawrence Fung. Doctor, welcome to Exploring Different Brains!  

DR. LAWRENCE FUNG (LF): Thank you, Dr. Reitman! Thank you for inviting me, it’s quite a privilege to be chatting with you here.  

HR: Well the privilege is all mine. Why don’t you give yourself a proper introduction because I probably messed it up a little bit.  

LF: So I am a psychiatrist specialized in autism. I am currently an assistant professor in the psychiatry department at Stanford, and I direct the Stanford Neurodiversity Project. Most importantly, more importantly than my academic affiliations is I am the father of a 16 year old guy – brilliant young man on the spectrum.

Becoming involved in the world of neurodiversity 

HR: Tell us how you got into psychiatry and into all these studies.  

LF: Yeah, so it was just about 13 years ago when I was in medical school. So this is my second career, I used to be a chemical engineer and was in college in the pharmaceutical industry. And then I decided to go to medicine, and during my third year of medical school–that’s basically the beginning of medical training in medical school–my first patient acted just like my son, who’s at the time about almost four years old, three years old, and maybe ten years old. And at that time I know I had been approved through the denial phase of accepting that my son is different. And then my wife and I decided that we should work to understand how we should help our son and we got him to be seen by several practitioners around the area. I was training in Washington, DC, at that time. And four of the five providers told us that he was on the spectrum. So after that, basically I told myself I am going to be basically doing anything that would be helpful for patients and may as well help my son. So I basically threw out my idea of becoming a cancer doctor and became a psychiatrist. And then after that, everything’s in the right path. I feel really good. I got into research in the field of autism, starting from there. And then I came to Stanford for my clinical training, and then stayed on as faculty member here.  

The approach of the Stanford Neurodiversity Project

HR: And I so admire your out-of-the-box thinking approach to autism. And tell us how you approach it differently from the way you found it when you first started getting into autism.  

LF: Yes, when I first got into the field, my mind was–remember, I told you that I thought I would become a cancer doctor before I became the psychiatrist. So I thought the logical way is to understand the biology and then treat the biology. The pathophysiology, basically have normal behaviors such after you understand the biology. And very quickly I came to the conclusion that autism is a very heterogeneous condition. If you have met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism. And there are millions of people just in this country who is on the spectrum.

Look at the genetics, 50% of the cases have the genetic component at least. And there are over a thousand genes associated with autism, there’s about a hundred jeans or more, strongly associated with autism. So to understand the biology is very, very daunting. And to get the treatment to be suitable for that biology is even more daunting. So basically I told myself I should be trying to look for themes. And I looked into understanding the biology, using the idea of excitation and inhibition imbalance in the brain. And that taught me some traction. And I study the Imaging using molecular imaging approaches. And then I thought that this will be the way to go. And then the last few years, what I found is that even that is not fast enough. And I saw examples that people that work in SAP and other companies that have excellent work programs. And I saw them as a people that are in this autism work program and blossoming in the companies and they are doing great work. Before that, they were not even given a chance.

So I thought this is really something that can really help people like my son to basically give them the opportunity to build their identity based on their strengths and interest, rather than their diagnosis. So basically about two and a half years ago, we started this special interest group for the diversity. And now we have over 375 people on our distribution list. And there are a lot of people very interested in this strength based model instead of the typical traditional model that’s in Madison that we have been using. So this is still out of the box thing that we are no longer trying to find what’s wrong with, trying to find the strength and interest in, and trying to really help their diverse individuals build their identity based on their strengths and interests. And using this methodology, we are building programs. we have a neurodiverse student support program that we just launched last summer. now the neurodiverse students at Stanford have a comprehensive support in all sorts of a different ways in terms of transitioning to college, their social life, their independent living skills. We train key mentors to help teach our diverse students.

We also have support for them in terms of learning their accommodations if they need accommodations, their career development, their mental health. So we get referrals for them so that they can all the components that are important in their development during their college years. And then we have this Neurodiversity at Work program that we started, and now we have an individual on the spectrum working in the school of medicine here and collaborating with the IT group. There are a couple more individuals on the Spectrum working in the IT department, and more recently we got out of the ground from Autism Speaks. And now we are going to be charged to facilitate the hiring of 80 people on the autism spectrum. Yeah we are going to be trying to not only get them hired, but also supporting them in the workplace. But not only the diverse individuals, we also support the employers as well as the coworkers.  

Collaborating with Dr. Karen Parker

HR: Well that is so admirable of you on so many levels. Well first of all, you’ve taken with the Lord Kelvin said that when you can measure something, then you know something about it. So you introduce some of the objective data into it. Now your lab works in sync with some of the other labs at Stanford overall in this. How does, for instance, your lab work in conjunction with the doctor Karen Parker there at Stanford?  

LF: Yes, so we collaborate on different projects. She is a very established investigator on oxytocin biology and vasopressin biology. What she has found is the use of Basil present as an agent that can be nasally administered and in a relatively small study. she has found that there is Improvement in social interactions in kids with autism. And I am very privileged to be part of that study and as a co-investigator, so she is really spearheading that affect together with Dr. Antonio Harden and helping both of them.  

Employment and neurodiversity 

HR: I was once on a panel with Jose Velazquez, the global leader of SAP. And he said “this is not a social welfare project, this improves our bottom line.” And this goes exactly in sync with your thoughts on harnessing the strengths, maximizing the individuals potential, and utilizing that for the greater good and for a mutually beneficial relationship.  

LF: Absolutely, so what we believe is that individuals on the spectrum have a lot of innovative thinking. They think out of the box a lot, and that makes them different in their thinking. And a lot of the time, they have the tendency to look at the details that people miss. A lot of people tend to look at big picture, but the style for individuals on the spectrum is they look at the details first. So when you’re trying to look for the details first, rather than the big picture, you have a very different perspective. So people that are on the spectrum working in companies like SAP, they have examples now that have been published in Harvard Business Review documenting people as a person on the spectrum, saving 40 million dollars for SAP. And this is a paper by Austin and Pisano, and more recently Jose Velasco told me that in a kind of like a competition in within their organization for innovation, the top prize went to the person on the autism spectrum. So that’s very, very inspiring. I told him that should be should be spread to everyone in our field and beyond.  

The Stanford Neurodiversity Summit

HR: Tell us a bit about your upcoming Stanford Neurodiversity Summit.  

LF: It is on March 14th, 2020. The location is the medical school Li Ka Shing center. So what we are aiming is to provide a lot of opportunities for our diverse job seekers. So we anticipate the conference to be just about 400 people, and about one half of them will be job seekers. And this conference will be very different. So in addition to the job seekers, one-half of the audience will be employers, as well as professionals, the parents, the students that are interested in neurodiversity initiatives. So the in the morning we’ll have talks that will mainly focus on employment issues and we have a very good academic panel. And then after that we’ll have a about six individuals in the industry who are the leaders in their Autism at Work program to be talking about their successes in neurodiversity at work initiative. And we’ll also have neurodiverse employees who are successful in the workplace that are able to overcome their challenges and find very good jobs and they are the working in their companies and being very productive members in their organizations. And they’ll share their stories.

In the afternoon, we’ll have a job fair and a reverse job fair. So people know about job fair in general. Reverse job fair is basically putting the spotlight more to see neurodiverse job seekers. So instead of the employers talking about their jobs and talking about their company, it is really about the nearest job seeker talking about their qualifications, and why they are suitable for the jobs that they are applying for. We are going to be making it as accessible as possible. So we noticed that in typical job fairs is in the big room is very overwhelming experience for neurodiverse individuals. So it is overwhelming given for neurotypical people because a lot of people are talking all at the same time in the big room with a lot of people. So what we are trying to do is to create stations in both job fair and reverse job fair, so employers and the job seekers are going to be in small groups. We’ll create an environment with stations with headphones, and so are individuals on the spectrum job seekers see they would hear presentations from the employers and in for the job fair and then the reverse job fair. The job seeker then deliver their presentation.  

Hiring neurodivergent employees

HR: It’s a win-win, employers find some great employees and neurodivergent individuals find a good job.  

LF: Exactly and we also will have breakout sessions concurring to the job fair and reverse job fair for those individuals that are not job seekers. So if you are a student interested in neurodiversity or are a neurodiverse student yourself, or your parents or some professional that’s interested in neurodiversity, there are breakout sessions for all those individuals. So that we have for session for K through 12, issues one session for college students, and one session for mental health. And also we have a session focus on teaching the reverse individuals on various job skills.  

HR: Well certainly the the job skills to get by the interview is a major hurdle first of all too. And I’ve seen some of the virtual reality training for interviews. For instance, they have at the Dan Marino Foundation, he had to prepare for the interviews with many of the companies, I’m glad to see getting away from the standard interview for our neurodivergent individuals.  

LF: Yes, yeah. So we are also trying to do, and I’ll program, is to make sure that the interaction between employer and the candidates are focused on what matters. So really what matters is the technical aspect of all the time. So what we encourage the employers to do is to really change their job posting so that it’s going to be a focus on what’s really some technical requirements that they need for the employee to to work on and in turn for the job speaker or the candidate, we we tell them that this is going to be the focus and we trained the managers and the co-workers to interview individuals to focus on all of that instead of using open ended questions like tell me about yourself, tell me about your five-year plan and tell me about your strengths and weaknesses and all that. So all those open ended questions are banned. And then they are going to be focusing on the questions that are really about the match. Does the candidate have the qualities that can do the job. That’s basically how we are trying to educate the employers. And also we negotiate with employers on how what to accommodate an individual can look like, and in the past what we have tried doing is to get employers to give the questions to the candidates ahead of time before the interview. And so that they have preparation. And in turn, the candidate also give the employers and co-workers the questions ahead of time so there is reciprocity. So yeah, so this way we can successfully got people hired and people that are heading in initially SMA, now they are offered full-time positions. So definitely to accommodate, an interview is working to the new hiring process for neurodiverse individuals. It’s working.  

HR: Nicely done, nicely done. Lawrence how can our audience learn more about you and your work?  

LF: Yeah, so what you can do is for neurodiversity project-related work, you can Google “Stanford Neurodiversity” and then you go right to the other page for Stanford Neurodiversity Project. And there are several different programs that we are running right now. And it’s surely self-explanatory at the top of the of the website. So if you are interested in student support, if it’s neurodiversity at work program it’s there. If you are interested in the conference at the top right-hand corner, there is a button for neurodiversity celebration week. You click there, and then you get to the page for the Stanford Neurodiversity Summit. And then you can register through there. So that’s for the Stanford Neurodiversity Project. For people that are interested in my work more on understanding the biology of autism and the other interventions that we are trying to invent and so forth, you can google Fung Lab Stanford. You should be able to find our lab page pretty easily.  

Understanding and embracing neurodiversity

HR: Lawrence, is there anything that we have not covered that you would like to discuss?  

LF: Well, what I want to say is neurodiversity is really for everyone. And everyone has something that’s different about them and the uniqueness of each individual has to be celebrated. So the more that we think that way, the more potential each and everyone of us will be able to achieve more. And for the society is going to be better. More people are going to be meeting their full potential. So we do need culture change, so we need everyone to be taking a little bit of a different step. Maybe to get this going. So this is a movement that will be helpful, will be helpful for everyone so if everyone chips in a little bit the movement is going to be going faster than the the old movements that have been going on for a little while, so I encourage practically everyone to send to just think about neurodiversity and especially if you are in a position of power that can change the environment. Think about spreading to work at your level because if you are in leadership positions, you have a responsibility to make a better environment for the people around you. So this is an additional thing that I want to say.  

HR: Well that’s a great, great segue to say Lawrence Fung, the head of the Stanford Neurodiversity Project, we hope you’ll come back again to Different Brains. This has been very educational. And we want you to keep up the good work because society needs to understand and embrace neurodiversity for the benefit of all of us. Thank you so much for all you do!  

LF: Thank you so much. This is quite a journey, I tell you I see myself as a vehicle of this movement and I’m just very humbled by being able to be up close to witness this movement. And thank you for the opportunity to speak with you, Hackie. It’s as wonderful  

HR: Thank you very much, we’ll see you again real soon I hope! Thank you.  

LF: Thank you!