When autism may be an advantage


Thorkil Sonne and his son Lars at home in Ringsted, Denmark

When Thorkil Sonne and his wife, Annette, learned that their 3-year-old son, Lars, had autism, they did what any parent who has faith in reason and research would do: They started reading. At first they were relieved that so much was written on the topic. “Then came sadness,” Annette says. Lars would have difficulty navigating the social world, they learned, and might never be completely independent. The bleak accounts of autistic adults who had to rely on their parents made them fear the future.

What they read, however, didn’t square with the Lars they came home to every day. He was a happy, curious boy, and as he grew, he amazed them with his quirky and astonishing abilities…To his father, Lars seemed less defined by deficits than by his unusual skills. And those skills, like intense focus and careful execution, were exactly the ones that Sonne, who was the technical director at a spinoff of TDC, Denmark’s largest telecommunications company, often looked for in his own employees…

Sonne did not consider himself an entrepreneurial type, but watching Lars — and hearing similar stories from parents he met volunteering with an autism organization — he slowly conceived a business plan: many companies struggle to find workers who can perform specific, often tedious tasks, like data entry or software testing; some autistic people would be exceptionally good at those tasks. So in 2003, Sonne quit his job, mortgaged the family’s home, took a two-day accounting course and started a company called Specialisterne, Danish for “the specialists,” on the theory that, given the right environment, an autistic adult could not just hold down a job but also be the best person for it.

For nearly a decade, the company has been modest in size — it employs 35 high-functioning autistic workers who are hired out as consultants, as they are called, to 19 companies in Denmark — but it has grand ambitions….At the World Economic Forum meeting in Tianjin in September, he was named one of 26 winners of a global social entrepreneurship award. Specialisterne has inspired start-ups and has five of its own, around the world. In the next few months, Sonne plans to move with his family to the United States, where the number of autistic adults — roughly 50,000 turn 18 every year — as well as a large technology sector suggests a good market for expansion…

For previously unemployable people — one recent study found that more than half of Americans with an autism diagnosis do not attend college or find jobs within two years of graduating from high school — Sonne’s idea holds out the possibility of self-sufficiency.

A long, fascinating article. The concept isn’t original – except to the demographic defined by Sonne’s experience with his son. One of my close kin was born profoundly deaf and when she and her family won the battle of mainstreaming and getting an education, the question of employment remained. The avenue she discovered – during the era of loud, irritating IBM keyboards – was data entry. Eventually, her experience with the content she read and turned into digital data led to a career managing and administering contracts based on that data.

Still, this can be a wider search and a daunting task. The emotional and social baggage associated with autism can be greater than a traditional “handicap”. The tale of Thorkil Sonne and Lars is inspirational and an education in and of itself.

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