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.

U.S. housing recovery on track — even if it doesn’t feel like it in your neck of the prairie

These are rent-to-own homes in Albuquerque

Housing starts fell in May from a 3-1/2 year high, although permits to build new homes rose sharply, suggesting a nascent housing recovery remains on track.

The Commerce Department said on Tuesday that groundbreaking on new homes dropped last month to an annual rate of 708,000 units, falling short of analysts’ expectations…However, upward revisions to data for March and April put starts above 700,000 for five straight months, a first since 2008.

This highlights a big turn of events that is under way: while the broader U.S. economy appears to be losing steam, housing is gaining traction and has become a relative bright spot. Despite a sharp slowdown in hiring, home prices appear to be stabilizing and homebuilder sentiment has risen to a five-year high…

The decline in starts in May was entirely due to a 21.3 percent drop in groundbreaking for multi-family buildings, a volatile reading that is prone to substantial revisions…Starts for single-family homes, which account for most of the market, increased 3.2 percent.

In another positive sign, new building permits jumped 7.9 percent in May to a 780,000-unit pace. That was the highest since September 2008 and well above analysts’ forecasts…

Many economists now predict home building will add to economic growth this year for the first time since 2005.

All news the Republicans hate to hear.

Housing construction – even multi-family buildings – ain’t exactly rocket science. Folks who’ve been working construction for decades are among the hardest hit by the Great Recession. Courtesy of unqualified mortgages and manipulation in buying and selling [mostly selling] mortgage-based derivatives.

Most economists agree this is the last significant portion of the United States economy needed to begin to climb out of the hole we were dropped into by supply-side dribble-down money-lovers. If this continues at any sort of steady rate, the broader economy will benefit. Employment will continue to benefit.

Even if you agree as I do that Republican attempts to cripple minimal Keynesian remedies have held back the tortured climb from the worst economic disaster in 80 years – they are working well enough to have a measurable effect in almost every state, every urban center.

Marijuana’s ‘gateway effect’ is an exception rather than a rule

Marijuana is thought by some to be a gateway drug among young people who eventually go on to try stronger substances. But that may be the exception rather than the rule, a new study finds.

Researchers from the University of New Hampshire looked at data from a random group of 1,286 children, teens and young adults who were in Miami-Dade public schools in the 1990s. Among the study participants, 26% were African American, 44% were Hispanic, and 30% were non-Hispanic white…

Education played a role in use of other substances–those more likely to have used marijuana as teens and other drugs as young adults didn’t graduate from high school or go to college. Employment factored in as well, since those who smoked pot as teens and were out of work after high school were more apt to use other drugs.

Researchers also discovered that if young adults became involved with other substances after using marijuana as teens, that link didn’t hold once the sources of stress, such as not working, went away.

Age was yet another issue. Researchers discovered that after the age of 21, the gateway effect seemed to disappear.

“Employment in young adulthood can protect people by ‘closing’ the marijuana gateway,” said lead author Karen Van Gundy, in a news release, “so over-criminalizing youth marijuana use might create more serious problems if it interferes with later employment opportunities.”

No kidding.

Not that this will mean much of anything to politicians and other professional moralists. Don’t let facts get in the way of your beliefs.

Mormon support of Gay Rights provokes surprise, praise

The Mormon Church has been a target of vituperation by some gay rights groups because of its active opposition to same-sex marriage. Now, the church was being praised by gay rights activists in Salt Lake City, citadel of the Mormon world, for its open support of a local ordinance banning discrimination against gay men and lesbians in housing and employment.

The ordinance, which passed unanimously, made Salt Lake the first city in Utah to offer such protections. While the measure probably had majority backing on the seven-member City Council anyway, the church’s support was seen by gay activists as a thunderclap that would resonate across the state and in the overwhelmingly Mormon legislature, where even subtle shifts in church positions on social issues can swing votes and sentiments.

It’s the most progressive and inclusive statement that the church has made on these issues,” said Will Carlson, the manager of public policy at Equality Utah, the state’s largest gay rights group. “What they’ve said here is huge, in protecting residents in other municipalities, and statewide…”

“Across America and around the world, diverse communities such as ours are wrestling with complex social and moral questions,” Michael R. Otterson, a church spokesman, said in a statement to the City Council. “The issues before you tonight are the right of people to have a roof over their heads and the right to work without being discriminated against.”

Overdue – and welcome to the struggle for civil rights.

Recession revises marriage choices in India

Daylife/Getty Images used by permission

Once, they were a prized catch.

Men who had everything an Indian woman wanted: a job, a house and a life of comfort in faraway lands. They had studied hard and landed top jobs in the West. On Wall Street. In Silicon Valley. In corporate boardrooms and college classrooms.

Every woman wanted a non-resident Indian or “NRI” groom.

Not anymore.

The economic slump has affected marriage traditions in India, forcing men and women to rethink their choices of a lifelong partner…

Shaadi.com is used by 14 million south Asians worldwide. Employee Gaurab Rakshit said the recession in the West has translated into more marriages in the East.

“What’s happened during this recession period is there are less women indicating a preference for NRI men on our site,” Rakshit said. “We see anywhere between a 20 to 30 percent drop off in demand…”

Leaner times has changed trends, too, among Indian men. In the past, many might have preferred a wife who stayed at home. Now, they are looking for women who work outside the home…

A wife who earns could help pay for the wedding, too. And that’s saying a lot in India, where marriages can be flamboyant and expensive affairs, though the economic slowdown has subdued them somewhat.

RTFA. A couple of wry anecdotes. Someday, of course, popular culture in India will move beyond arranged marriages.

Response to advert for “best job in the world” swamps website

Daylife/AP Photo by Darren Jew

The chance to be the caretaker of a tiny tropical island in Australia has sparked so much interest around the world that a rush of applications crashed the website advertising the post.

The job, which offers a salary of $105,000 to spend six months on the Great Barrier Reef island of Hamilton, has been inundated with hundreds of thousands of prospective candidates.

An official from the state of Queensland, which is offering the position, said the job was created as an antidote to the global economic slump and was being advertised in 18 countries including the United States and China.

Local media said technicians had to restore the website after it could not cope with the volume of interest and crashed for several hours. Some sections are still not up and running…

The successful candidate will have to go scuba diving, snorkeling and hiking and enjoy at least 25 nearby island resorts. Thrown in is a luxury three-bedroom home and transportation to and from the island.

No skills, nor experience is needed, and there is no age requirement. The job starts in July.

I don’t know if I can offload all my responsibilities by July. But, I surely would try like hell.

Tata announces new plant for Nano in Gujarat

Indian firm Tata Motors is to build the world’s cheapest car in the western state of Gujarat. Tata group chairman Ratan Tata said the Gujarat deal offered the best chance of making the car, the Nano, as quickly and cheaply as possible.

The move comes after Tata pulled out of its factory in West Bengal state in a row over land acquired from farmers.

The Nano is expected to cost about 100,000 rupees ($2,130) and was due to be launched this month.

“While awaiting the Sanand plant’s completion, Tata Motors will explore the possibility of manufacturing the Nano at its existing facilities at Pune and Pantnagar, and launch the car in the last quarter of this financial year.”

The Sanand plant will make 250,000 Nanos a year, rising to 500,000, the company says. It is not clear when production at the plant will begin.

The range of opposition to the Nano plant in West Bengal – from small tenant farmers to absentee landlords – displayed a collective shortsightedness rarely equaled in developing nations. They got what they asked for. Nothing.