Change from Without with Dr. Heidi Stieglitz Ham

Dr. Heidi Stieglitz Ham is a social entrepreneur, autism researcher, adjunct professor at Rice University, and founder of Spectrum Fusion. After listening to parents across multiple continents share their concerns regarding the lack of opportunities and positive outcomes for their adult children on the autism spectrum, she created a vision to shape the future of neurodiversity by creating a model grounded in sense-of-belonging, community, embracing the science of hope, and empowering adults on the spectrum to reach their full potential.

Dr. Stieglitz Ham founded Spectrum Fusion in 2014 in Australia, and in 2017 she launched the Reactor Room Program: ‘A Shark Tank’ for Adults on the Autism Spectrum designed to create new and innovative opportunities for individuals providing them access to important connections. Currently, Dr. Stieglitz Ham is the Principal Investigator on a research study at Rice University assessing the effectiveness of traditional assessment measures that employers typically administer in adults on the autism spectrum.


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Here’s a glimpse of what you’ll learn:

  • How “working with a tree” became Dr. Ham’s motivation to earn her doctoral degree in cognitive psychology
  • The tension between the deliberate pace off academia of the urgent needs of its subjects
  • How Chris Martin, one of Dr. Ham’s clients, nearly made it on The Voice with one of his original songs
  • Hear from Phil about about Spectrum Fusion has helped him
  • Brennan discusses a professional video projects he’s completed since joining Spectrum Fusion, including one for Johnson & Johnson

In this episode…

Dr. Heidi Stieglitz Ham is motivated to change the world for the better, and she found that becoming an agent of Change from Without was the right fit for her.

In this episode of An Unconventional Life, Dr. Heidi Stieglitz Ham and Dr. Russell Strickland discuss their multinational and remote doctoral journeys. Dr. Ham’s globetrotting lead her to discover that parents of adults on the autism spectrum, along with the adults themselves, had the same concerns and the same sense of urgency, which was not being served by academia. Through Spectrum Fusion, Dr. Ham has helped adults on the spectrum get noticed by the television show, The Voice, launch a jewelry business, earn a personal trainer certification, become a professional videographer and invaluable member of her own team, overcome homelessness to become self-sufficient as a welder, and more!

Dr. Ham’s success stories will restore your faith in humanity and renew your drive to make the world a better place.

Resources Mentioned in this episode

Sponsor for this episode…

This episode is brought to you by Dissertation Done, America’s #1 authority in dissertation completion for working professionals.

Founded by Dr. Russell Strickland, Dissertation Done serves people in two ways:

  1. If you’re struggling with your dissertation, getting ready to start your dissertation, or just plain wanting to get your dissertation done as soon as possible, go to and Let’s Get Your Dissertation Done
  2. If you’re busy living your Unconventional Life and have a message that you want to share, maybe you should join our Expand Your Authority Program to become a published author. Go to and let me know that you’d like to talk about Expanding Your Authority.

Visit to learn more about our other services and leave a message or call them at 888-80-DR-NOW (888-803-7669) to schedule your free 30 to 45-minute phone consultation.

Episode Transcript

Disclaimer: This transcript is here for your reading convenience. It was created by machines and may (a-hem) contain some errors. If you email us about these errors, the machines will undoubtedly find out. I hope they won’t get angry.


Intro [00:00:03]

Welcome to An Unconventional Life, a podcast where we share stories about the crazy one percent out there who earned their doctoral degrees and then went on to use them in crazy, cool, unique and unconventional ways. Here’s your host, astrophysicist and teacher, author, dissertation coach and more, Dr Russell Strickland.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:00:29]

Hello and welcome to an Unconventional Life Podcast. I’m your host, Dr Russell Strickland, and I have with me today Dr. Heidi Stieglitz Ham. Dr. Ham is a social entrepreneur, autism researcher, and adjunct professor at Rice University. She’s also the founder of Spectrum Fusion, which is a bit like a Shark Tank, or they’ve had at least a Shark Tank for folks that are on the autism spectrum. I have already heard several of her stories, and I can’t wait for her to share them with you today. Welcome, Dr. Ham. Thank you so much for joining us.


Dr. Heidi Stieglitz Ham [00:01:03]

Thank you. I’m really happy to be here.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:01:06]

And for those of you on YouTube, she’s got all of her Reactor Room and Spectrum Fusion banners in the background, it looks so good. And I want to let you guys know that today’s episode brought to you by Dissertation Done and we hope adult doctoral students through the dissertation process. So if you’re about to start the dissertation process and you know how important coaching is and having someone to guide you through a process is why don’t you take the proactive step to reach out to and see if you might be a good fit for our Fast-Track Your Dissertation coaching program. Now, most of you are probably in the stage where you are struggling through the dissertation or about fed up with it and thinking about quitting, before you do, again reach out to us at And let’s see if we can have a conversation and maybe help you out now if you’ve moved past that stage in your life, but you’re in the sort of expert field and you want to get your expertise out to more businesses and more people, the best way to do that is not only have a first name, Doctor, but also be a published author, to be able to say I literally wrote the book on whatever it is you help people with is amazing. And we’re helping folks through that process as well. Through our Expand Your Authority program, you can check that out, like going to That’s So that’s the commercial. Dr Ham, welcome and thank you so much for joining us today.


Dr. Heidi Stieglitz Ham [00:02:30]

Well, I wish I knew about Dissertation Done when I was going through my process.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:02:36]

I kind of wish I did too, because I had a few troubles along the way as well. People, sometimes when I tell my story, people are like, oh, you like coasted through your dissertation. But I had moments of doubt and I wasn’t sure how how quickly I would get through the process. And I was lucky enough to find the right mentor at the right time to help me in this one little area I didn’t really get stuck on. But if I didn’t have that push at the right time in the right direction, I might still be there. So, Dr. Ham, tell us… I like to ask folks to start…everybody has such eclectic backgrounds and are doing such wonderful and unique things when they come on on the show. But I always like to begin with what made you make that decision to jump in and earn a PhD or a doctoral degree? It’s a it’s a tough row to hoe and there’s not many people who who answered the call. What made you decide to do so?


Dr. Heidi Stieglitz Ham [00:03:35]

Well, I was working as a speech pathologist and I was a clinical supervisor at the University of Houston Language Learning Group. And I could see many of the families were spending just seventy-five thousand dollars a year on unproven therapies. And then when they ran out of money, then they would come to the university because we had a free clinic. But then I was also consulting in the public schools and working with individuals that were still in the middle school. And they were non-verbal and really just left to their own devices as long as they weren’t making any trouble.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:04:14]

As speech pathologist, were you working with folks on the spectrum at that time as well?


Dr. Heidi Stieglitz Ham [00:04:17]

Yes, working with individuals on the spectrum. Thank you. And so these these children are now they’re 16 and when they were older and but nobody really wanted to engage with them and some were even afraid of them. And and when I would go into the classroom, when a teacher, he said, I don’t even know why you’re wasting your time working with the students. You’d have better luck working with the tree. He really said that. And I thought, OK, I’m going to do something and make a difference.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:04:49]

So skipping ahead on the story a little bit… What you’re doing now with The Reactor Room and Spectrum Fusion is kind of answering that question. And I don’t want to spoil that too much for folks yet. But when you told me that before we started here today, and I just could not believe that someone was going to say, we’re just going to write this person off. I mean, it’s one thing we don’t have the resources and we’re sorry, but but to just look at a person and say they’re not worth helping is is awful. And changing that public perception or maybe is not a public perception, but that perception in any person is a very worthwhile endeavor.


Dr. Heidi Stieglitz Ham [00:05:22]

Well, and what I was sharing is that, you know, I’ve learned if you want to change the world, you can either change with. In traditional systems, or you can go outside of the traditional system and try to make a difference, and so making a difference in the schools, I knew I would need a PhD. Now I’m making a difference outside of the traditional systems. And that’s what I’m doing with The Reactor Room program and Spectrum Fusion. And so then I went to move to Edinburgh in Scotland, and that’s where I did embark upon my PhD in cognitive psychology. And I just want to share with students that at some point you may feel like giving up. You may think that you can’t do it, but then, you know, you’re so far in and you can’t go back. You know, you have to finish. You have to walk through. And I encourage you to continue.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:06:18]

It’s definitely there’s a there’s an investment in time and money and effort and all of that. But I think it’s really when we mention you’re so far in that you can’t go back, I think it’s really right when you make that decision to enroll. Because what I found is that so many of our students and I know I can identify this in myself as well. By the time you decided to enroll in a doctoral degree program, you had already decided yourself a long time ago that you’re a doctor, that that’s who you are as part of your identity is how you see yourself. And there’s a dissonance if you don’t make that happen. So. So, yeah, I know I know the idea of people saying, oh, I’m going so far, I’ve got to keep going. But but I think I got to keep going part is because that’s who I am.


Dr. Heidi Stieglitz Ham [00:07:03]

Yeah. Because you want to keep going. Yeah, exactly.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:07:05]

Well “you want to” might not be the right word.


Dr. Heidi Stieglitz Ham [00:07:10]

Exactly. You want to finish and but that’s what we’re talking about is just the tenacity and the perseverance. And if you will be happy that you did, that’s it.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:07:23]

Yeah, I know. I think we’re still in this COVID period where there’s lockdown’s coming and going. And when this started, I was lucky enough to get a little bit of gym equipment and put out in the garage. And when I go out there to work out, I look at the weights and I’m not kidding. I literally talk to myself, “You just have to go over there. You just have to lift it.” Like I mean, literally actually means literally I’ll talk to myself and do that because I don’t want to keep going. I want to finish. I want to be done with that because you have to go do it again in a few days. But with the dissertation, you’re lucky enough that you’ll have to do it once you finish it.


Dr. Heidi Stieglitz Ham [00:08:01]



Dr. Russell Strickland [00:08:02]

So tell folks about what that process was, was like for you. You mentioned that you were doing speech pathology work in the Houston area, right?


Dr. Heidi Stieglitz Ham [00:08:13]

Yes. And then we my husband and I, we sold our house and we moved everything to the UK. And and then once I arrived, I realized that probably it wasn’t a good fit with my PhD supervisor. And that really is a very important decision. And so and I could see that some of the other students were there for seven years and still not completing their PhD. So I did make this decision to change to another supervisor, but that was not easy, but it was the best decision for me.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:08:51]

And in their system will be going going say, in their system in particular. But they they tend to run programs like we do traditional programs in the US where most of their graduates are expected to be in academia. And that’s just that master-apprentice sort of relationship is the way they do everything over there. And so to to switch supervisors is a big deal. It’s it’s it’s almost like for folks who follow sports switching teams back in the 70s or 80s or something like that. Now people do it all the time. But back then you would be considered almost a traitor. You’re leaving your family and going to another family to make that change. So it is tough, but I have it right.


Dr. Heidi Stieglitz Ham [00:09:34]

Yes. Yeah. And it was I had a really unique experience because one of my supervisors in Modena Italy. And so I did fine in Italy and I was able to work with her. And then my other supervisor was in in Wisconsin in the medical college in Wisconsin, because in the process of this, my dad had a stroke. And so I did go back to come back to collect data there in the US. And then then I flew back to Edinburgh. So in a way, I really had a very multi national kind of collaborative PhD. And I think it was a wonderful experience.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:10:17]

And I would call that unconventional.


Dr. Heidi Stieglitz Ham [00:10:20]

Unconventional in and of itself.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:10:21]

Certainly, I was going to say, you know, if you’re if you’re studying in Edinburgh to have an excuse to fly to Italy, for work, is great, right?


Dr. Heidi Stieglitz Ham [00:10:33]

So it was what the head of our cognitive neuroscience department, his previous student was in Modena. And then she ended up moving to live in France and is at Charles de Gaulle. And so we we still so we we just never really met in person very often. And so we were five years in communication through mostly emails. And it was amazing.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:10:58]

Yeah, I actually had a similar experience in my own dissertation. I went to my commencement and they have you walk across the stage. The folks who were you were at the doctoral level, maybe the master’s level, but definitely the doctoral level. You walk across the stage and my advisor was in the audience. He said, “That’s him,” and then found me at the reception. And that is literally the first time that we when he said he found me on the stage, it was because we had never seen each other before, because when I went through this Zoom and everything wasn’t a thing. We talked on the phone a bit. We definitely corresponded a lot through email. So that was literally the first time I’d ever seen his face was when he came up to me and said, “Hi, I’m your adviser.”


Dr. Heidi Stieglitz Ham [00:11:40]

Well, yes. And one of my regrets is that after my PhD, I started teaching at the University of Queensland in Australia. That’s not the regret. I love that. But I didn’t go back for my graduation ceremony because I was already working and it was really hard to get back from Australia to the UK. I’m still sad about that because you only have one chance to do that. And I that’s a regret that I have. But just to have that feeling of accomplishment walking across the stage and, you know, in your regalia. So anyway.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:12:19]

Look at the bright side again, literally, you are in Australia instead of Edinburgh. I remember when I went to graduate school in Chicago. I grew up in the south in the US, went up to Chicago, where for folks who don’t know, it is all the way on the east side of the Central Time Zone and a lot further north where I grew up anyway. And so it gets dark early there for both of those reasons. And yeah, it was a it was a very dark and gloomy kind of existence once it got to October or something like that from October to maybe February or something. I still say that it was grayer in Edinburgh when I went in the summer than it was in winter in Chicago.


Dr. Heidi Stieglitz Ham [00:13:04]

Yes, it’s true. And I worked as a speech pathologist at West up in Oak Park and we lived in Oak Park when we lived in Chicago.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:13:13]

Very nice place. All right. So you’ve gone through this multinational dissertation process. You’ve finished you end up going to Australia. What’s next on the postdoctoral journey for Dr. Ham?


Dr. Heidi Stieglitz Ham [00:13:28]

So I lived in Nigeria at this point, and then London and Edinburgh and Brisbane and then Perth in Western Australia. And then by this time, I had been really hearing the same stories from families all across the world. And so if we would recruit for a study, the parents would say, are the adults themselves, what’s it’s going to get me now? Families had the sense of urgency. Our adults, our children are now reaching adulthood. They’re living at home. What are we going to do? They’re panicked. And so I thought, OK, and I launch Spectrum Fusion because when you’re in academia, when you’re working in a clinic, you can’t say, oh, I’m working with John. But I think that, you know, Matt over here, they’d be great friends. You can’t do anything like that. But here we had all these lonely, disconnected, isolated individuals. And so but as a community, we were better together. And so I launched a pilot program to America and then in twenty 501c3. And so Spectrum Fusion is the overarching community and it’s grounded in principles of belonging and then having a vibrant community connections, authentic connections, and then empowering adults to reach their full potential. And that’s really what we our whole mission is. And we are now growing and where we can talk about the different programs that we have.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:15:05]

Absolutely. And I will tell you, one of the reasons why I like working with doctoral students and why I chose to start dissertation done is because I think that most doctoral students, the reason why they’re getting their doctorate or at least a reason why they’re getting their doctorate is because they want to make the world a better place, whether it’s a specific one or the world. So if someone used the phrase putting a dent in the universe, you’re not affecting the whole thing, but you’re definitely helping somewhere. And whether it’s whether it’s that or people that have larger aspirations, I just think it’s wonderful to work with folks who are inspired to do something when they see a problem, go out and do something about it. And this entire journey that you’re on is so inspirational because of that reason. So I want to just again, thank you for being here today.


Dr. Heidi Stieglitz Ham [00:15:55]

Thank you. And we still have participants in Australia. Chris Martin is the young man on the spectrum. He writes songs, is produced songs one. Our last song, Live to See 40, caught the attention of The Voice in Australia. And but we didn’t have somebody who was neurodiversity singing it. We had he wrote it. But still, that’s pretty amazing that we talked to the producer there. So I’m excited about the opportunities that we have. And so and that’s why I actually started The Reactor Room program and Spectrum Fusion because we have a stereotype of somebody on the spectrum who is really they excel in math or science or computer coding. They might be quiet, but little quirky. But that’s just one stereotype. We have the whole rest of the spectrum and others who we would say are neurodivergent. So people who have dyslexia, dysgraphia or ADD, but certainly we have the creatives of videographers, the voiceover artists, the script writers, graphic designers. We have all of the other individuals that we need to actually empower to bring their gifts and talents to the world.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:17:15]

Absolutely. Let me ask you about just just out of curiosity about. Curiosity that the the man that you said wrote the song, the got picked up by the voice in Australia, knowing how they do these sort of things, did they do they happen to do a little feature on him?


Dr. Heidi Stieglitz Ham [00:17:31]

No, because he wasn’t the singer.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:17:33]



Dr. Heidi Stieglitz Ham [00:17:34]

They were looking for the singer. And when they have a singer audition, they sing a mainstream song. So the idea was if they would have chosen the singer that sang our song, let’s say, then then that that song would our song, the Live to See 40, would have been featured. But because they didn’t. But I think it was still exciting and you know, that they they did notice it right.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:18:00]

When we say they noticed it. What does that mean? How did the singer do on the show?


Dr. Heidi Stieglitz Ham [00:18:05]

Well, the singer we didn’t get to this show because we didn’t get to the audition because our singer was not neurodiverse. So our singer. So she helped us. So she was not she didn’t have a diagnosis of autism. So I think The Voice they were looking for also not only the writer to be on the spectrum, but the singer to be on the spectrum. But they found us because Chris Martin, he he received a grant, they found Spectrum Fusion. They could see that we were working with creatives. And so then they called me. So that’s still exciting, even though we didn’t have somebody on the spectrum singing it, right?


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:18:44]

No, I understand that. That doesn’t that doesn’t matter because people contribute in all sorts of ways and there are more people behind the scenes than there are on camera. So, yes, I think it would just be wonderful if you could have had some some B roll of him standing offstage watching her.


Dr. Heidi Stieglitz Ham [00:18:59]

I know. I know.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:19:01]

To be able to tell that story because that story is important. You know, what you think of. And maybe The Voice was thinking of it this way, that she was the star of the story because she was getting her chance to say, but he was the star of his own story because he was getting a chance to see his song get there on that kind of stage. And that’s for anybody who’s a songwriter. That’s amazing. That’s what you’re going for. Some songwriters want to sing, but a lot of songwriters just want their songs to be out there. And and that he did that is amazing.


Dr. Heidi Stieglitz Ham [00:19:30]

And so, Chris Martin, he started a Facebook challenge with the song because Live to See 40. He is about the individuals who are different individuals who are on the spectrum or have other challenges. They have hopes and dreams just like the rest of us. But often they don’t have the opportunities to realize their dreams. But if we can come together as a world and community and give them opportunities, they can thrive. And so the song is about everybody. One person wants to be a jewelry designer and one person wants to travel the world. You know, they have all of these. And so he’s he put up three wishes and three friends where you write your three wishes that you want to do before you die and then take three friends and think, you know, like this could be a Facebook challenge. So, yeah.

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Dr. Russell W. Strickland

RUSSELL STRICKLAND, Ph.D., has been referred to as a “rocket scientist turned management consultant.” In truth, he applies an eclectic body of work from astronomy and nuclear physics to dynamic inventory management to market research to each of his student engagements.