Helping Adults with Autism Tap into their Talents

Vanessa Bal with lab assistants
From left, Vanessa Bal with her Rutgers University–New Brunswick students Keya Pai, Jacqueline Shinall (presenting her dissertation defense), Gabrielle Gunin, and Ellen Wilkinson.

Rutgers Researcher Receives Gift to Help Adults with Autism Thrive

While adults with autism often highlight their impairments and difficulties when speaking with medical staff about treatment, a Rutgers University psychology professor is developing a tool that instead will help evaluate and leverage their underutilized assets and talents.

Playing to their strengths will provide these adults with better support services and enable them to lead productive, mentally healthy lives, says Vanessa Bal, the Karmazin and Lillard Chair in Adult Autism and an associate professor in the Rutgers Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology.

Dr. Vanessa Bal
Vanessa Bal, the Karmazin and Lillard Chair in Adult Autism and an associate professor in the Rutgers Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology

“We spend so much time emphasizing ways in which they need support,” Bal says. “We don’t always spend as much time developing things people are already good at, that come naturally or feel good to them.”

Bal recently received a $70,000 gift to support her research developing an instrument to identify and evaluate strengths and talents in adults with autism from the Emergent Ventures program, an initiative of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

Tyler Cowen, director of the program, discovered Bal’s research from a colleague and was impressed with her work as a researcher and practitioner. An internationally recognized expert in economics, Cowen says Bal’s work is directly tied to economic theory.

“How to mobilize underutilized talent is a central question in economics, and a key to improving future productivity,” Cowen says. “Many individuals with autism fit into exactly this category. They can be highly successful and major contributors to productivity, and it is time their potential is studied more formally.”

The instrument Bal is developing aims to identify those underutilized strengths, which could help address the “services cliff” autistic adults face when they leave high school. The tool will help them develop “pathways to employment and other community settings where they can further develop their strengths and utilize their talents,” she says.

In a recent publication, Bal’s team highlighted the importance of opportunity to develop skills needed to navigate daily life.

“As autistic people age, some need lots of continued support in a range of settings,” says Bal, who also serves as director of the Psychological Services Clinic and codirector of research at the Rutgers Center for Adult Autism Services (RCAAS), whose mission is to help adults on the autism spectrum remain engaged in their communities and lead fulfilling lives. “It's hard to imagine where to even start, because not every young person transitioning to adulthood follows the same path.”

Located on the New Brunswick campus and dedicated in 2021, the RCAAS is a state-of-the-art building that welcomes adults with autism into a supportive community environment where they can learn practical living, employment, and social skills.

The RCAAS community center and programs were built on a foundation of philanthropy and primarily through privately funded gifts. Last year, the center received support associated with a $31,500 grant from the New Jersey-based Autism MVP Foundation to create fellowships for Rutgers GSAPP students pursuing areas of study and careers empowering adults with autism.

Bal says Rutgers, which has a neurodiversity task force, is committed to supporting people across a range of abilities, perspectives, and settings. She sees Rutgers as an example of a university that’s committed to neurodiversity broadly defined, to creating an inclusive environment where people feel valued and part of the community.

“It's another aspect of diversity that I am hoping we'll be able to really address as part of the larger DEI efforts,” she says.

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