Image Credit: Doug Buckley of

Image Credit: Doug Buckley of

Thorkil Sonne, from Denmark, knows how to find gifts in the most hidden of places… the autistic mind. When he discovered that his own son had autism years ago, he decided to become an expert observer, and to help his son eventually live as independent a life as possible. He succeeded with that goal… and he started a company, Specialisterne, to help place other autistic individuals in jobs for which they are uniquely adapted to perform well. And the placements are as different and unique as each individual person!

From, posted 11/29/2012:

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?”

It’s an appealing metaphor, though perhaps a tougher sell in the United States, where you rarely see dandelion salad. It is also, of course, a little too simple. Over eight years of evaluating autistic adults, Sonne has discovered that only a small minority have the abilities Specialisterne is looking for and are able to navigate the unpredictable world of work well enough to keep a job. “We want to be a role model to inspire,” Sonne told me later, “but we can only hire the ones that we believe can fill a valuable role in a consultancy like ours.” In other words, he’s not running a charity. It is Sonne’s ultimate goal to change how “neurotypicals” see people with autism, and the best way to do that, he has decided, is to prove their value in the marketplace.

Why does higher education in the US implement only a standards-based, cookie-cutter model – driven by the institution of accreditation? Why don’t we replace (or supplement) the system with an exploratory model that helps people discover not only their interests and talents – but also what they’re not good at? Why don’t we make it a success to identify what we’re not interested in, and don’t really love doing – so that we can leave those tasks and careers to other people who might really like them?

Furthermore, identifying and using your gifts is a lifelong vocation. I don’t think I found any of mine until I was in my 30’s… and I’m just learning how to apply them. I know now that I’ve just started my own personal journey.

What else can we learn from Sonne’s attitude and experience?

Share →