The Autism Advantage – NYTimes.com
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.
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. In Europe, Sonne is a minor celebrity who has met with Danish and Belgian royalty, and 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.