Friday, November 30, 2012

High-tech companies that find certain autistic employees are the best at their jobs

I found this article fascinating. Click on the title to see the entire amazing story. It includes a boy who used Legos to tell the story of his life.

The Autism Advantage
New York Times
November 29, 2012

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. If his parents threw out a date — Dec. 20, 1997, say — he could name, almost instantly, the day of the week (Saturday). And, far more usefully for his family, who live near Copenhagen, Lars knew the train schedules of all of Denmark’s major routes.

One day when Lars was 7, Thorkil Sonne was puttering around the house doing weekend chores while Lars sat on a wooden chair, hunched for hours over a sheet of paper, pencil in hand, sketching chubby rectangles and filling them with numerals in what seemed to represent a rough outline of Europe. The family had recently gone on a long car trip from Scotland to Germany, and Lars passed the time in the back seat studying a road atlas. Sonne walked over to a low shelf in the living room, pulled out the atlas and opened it up. The table of contents was presented as a map of the continent, with page numbers listed in boxes over the various countries (the fjords of Norway, Pages 34-35; Ireland, Pages 76-77). Thorkil returned to Lars’s side. He slid a finger along the atlas, moving from box to box, comparing the source with his son’s copy. Every number matched. Lars had reproduced the entire spread, from memory, without an error. “I was stunned, absolutely,” Sonne told me.

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...

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