Weed or Herb? From Special Needs to Specialists

Social entrepreneur Thorkil Sonne is trying to change how the world thinks about autism.

Thorkil explained that people with autism are often defined by, and denied work because of, their lack of social skills.

Do you consider a dandelion a weed or an herb? Loads of fun for kids to blow at and send scattering in the wind, and loaded with rich nutritional value such as iron and vitamin A, but often seen as a weed that invades gardens because it is not wanted there.

In a similar way, how we perceive an individual depends very much on the lenses through which we choose to view him, social entrepreneur Thorkil Sonne told participants at the Singapore International Foundation’s fourth Ideas for a Better World Forum on 21 July.

Speaking on the competitive advantage of people he calls specialists, the Ashoka Fellow explained that people with autism are often defined by, and denied work because of, their lack of social skills.

But they possess special traits such as having great attention to detail and the ability to perform repetitive tasks with high accuracy, skills that make them specially suitable - specialists - for jobs such as software testing and data management.

Inspired by his son, who was diagnosed with autism, and informed by his years of experience in the information technology industry, Mr Sonne founded in 2004 Specialisterne, a for-profit company that competes on an even footing with other firms, to create jobs which harness the unique capabilities of these individuals for gainful employment.

He went on to establish the non-profit Specialist People Foundation in 2008 with the vision of enabling one million jobs for these specialists around the world and to help people see these specialists as worthy, valuable and contributing members of society.

Joining him for the panel discussion at the forum was Ms Denise Phua, president of the Autism Resource Centre Singapore and the supervisor of Pathlight School and Eden School Boards, who said there was more funding for and emphasis on formal training and education for special needs individuals in Singapore now, but added there needed to be a better structured job placement system to ensure their successful integration into the work environment.

Bringing perspectives from the business and employer’s side, were Ms Tracey Ho, a Workforce Diversity leader at IBM, and Mr Alvin Ng, a managing director for Global Enterprises at Cisco Systems.

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