I remember the first time my son spotted a mistake on the cover of a Lego catalog. He was eight, the Harry Potter sets had just debuted, and he insisted that Draco Malfoy was wearing the wrong shirt.

This morning, six years later, I asked him to remind me about the details.

"Malfoy belongs to the Slytherin house," he explained. "They put him in a Gryffindoor uniform. I emailed them and they said they knew it was a mistake but they'd already printed the catalogs."

Since then, he's pointed out dozens of inconsistencies in books, magazines and manuals. We've joked that companies should hire him before sending anything to press.

I've always seen his ability to spot anomalies as an endearing quirk.

Now I see it as a potential competitive advantage once he's old enough to enter the workforce.

Different, not deficient

As I discovered in researching this story on neurodiversity, more businesses are harnessing the strengths of people whose brains operate differently. My son has high-functioning autism--also known as Asperger's syndrome--and his ability to spot inconsistencies is one quality that's increasingly valued in the tech sector.

"There's a huge demand for this skill set of finding a needle in a haystack," says Rob Austin, neurodiversity expert and professor at Ivey Business School in Ontario.

Austin points out that recent high-profile cyber attacks at companies like Equifax and Deloitte underscore the need for more detailed network traffic analysis to detect breaches in cybersecurity.

People with autism are naturally equipped to provide that analysis.

In Israel, this meticulous attention to detail saves lives. The Israeli army hires agents with autism for a top-secret intelligence unit that conducts highly sensitive operations. Soldiers with autism use their unique abilities to scan military satellites for enemy activity.

As I learn more about entities capitalizing on the skills of this often-overlooked and vastly underemployed talent pool, I become increasingly hopeful. Not only for my son and others like him, but for an emerging culture where differences once seen as deficits, are increasingly saluted as strengths.

No accommodation necessary

I have to admit, when I set out to write a column about companies hiring workers with autism, I expected to detail various accommodations like noise-cancelling headphones, visual cues and modified interviewing processes to minimize social discomfort.

But what I uncovered was a growing network of "social enterprises." These autism-based businesses are so focused on the employment strengths of individuals with autism that the accommodations I intended to write about aren't even necessary.

The idea behind a social enterprise is this: Maximize the profits of a business, while maximizing the potential of an individual.

It's a win-win. There's no charity here. The companies benefit just as much as the employees.

Michael Ashburne, 47, is a senior analyst at Aspiritech, a social enterprise software firm started by the mother of a young adult with autism.

"In the past, my attention to detail and my own standards of doing something 'right' always got in the way," Ashburne explains.

But at Aspiritech, that meticulousness earned him a promotion.

Being more of who we are

So what if we all ran our businesses as social enterprises, focusing on depth of talent, rather than breadth?

What if we took the right-brain employee who struggles with numbers and stopped sending her spreadsheet webinars and started capitalizing on her storytelling strengths?

What if it-takes-him-too-long-to-make decisions became our go-to guy for the methodical, long-term projects?

And how about our families?

Rather than trying to smooth out the traits of "too quiet" or "too many questions" or "too competitive," what if we support these qualities to shine?

I'm not suggesting that we let bad behavior slide. But sometimes, there's so much focus on creating generalists and working on weak spots that we end up overlooking and underutilizing innate strengths.

Sometimes, well-rounded can be a recipe for mediocrity.

So what if, rather than diluting someone's uniqueness and distilling it down to a broth, we instead make a hearty stew full of:

Dandelions

Specialisterne is a Danish tech company that hires workers with autism. The company's symbol is a dandelion.

"If you treat the dandelion as an herb, you will get access to all its values," says Specialisterne's website. "If you treat the dandelion as a weed, you will never learn that it is one of the most valuable plants in nature."

The company is now global. Its founder is the father of a son with autism, who wants the world to stop putting a premium on uniform green lawns... and start appreciating the dandelions.

The other day, my son and I independently chose the same movie.

"Great minds think alike," I smiled.

"What?" he sounded confused.

"Oh, it's an expression. Great minds think alike."

"It should be the opposite," he said. "Great minds think differently."

Published on: Oct 18, 2017
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