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Allowing people to be defined by their strengths not their weaknesses

December 5, 2012
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Gareth Cook writes in the New York Times about the advantages companies are finding by employing those with autism:

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.

I first met Sonne, who is 52, in Delaware at a small conference he organized for parents and government officials who want to help him set up American operations over the coming year. He stood before them, sipping a cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, speaking enthusiastically of his “dandelion model”: when dandelions pop up in a lawn, we call them weeds, he said, but the spring greens can also make a tasty salad. A similar thing can be said of autistic people — that apparent weaknesses (bluntness and obsessiveness, say) can also be marketable strengths (directness, attention to detail). “Every one of us has the power to decide,” he said to the audience, “do we see a weed, or do we see an herb?”

Tyler Cowen, an economist at George Mason University (and a regular contributor to The Times), published a much-discussed paper last year that addressed the ways that autistic workers are being drawn into the modern economy. The autistic worker, Cowen wrote, has an unusually wide variation in his or her skills, with higher highs and lower lows. Yet today, he argued, it is increasingly a worker’s greatest skill, not his average skill level, that matters. As capitalism has grown more adept at disaggregating tasks, workers can focus on what they do best, and managers are challenged to make room for brilliant, if difficult, outliers. This march toward greater specialization, combined with the pressing need for expertise in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, so-called STEM workers, suggests that the prospects for autistic workers will be on the rise in the coming decades. If the market can forgive people’s weaknesses, then they will rise to the level of their natural gifts.

This is amazing and the implications of this are far-reaching. Why? Because autism isn’t the only time we choose to define and see people through the lens of their weaknesses instead of through the lens of their strengths.

We would do well to take this lesson to heart.

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