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December 06, 2012

Is your child a dandelion? Weed or herb?

By Carol Lloyd, Executive Editor

This week’s New York Times Magazine article about an employment service for autistic adults started in Denmark but now moving to the United States, has unleashed the expected torrent of praise, criticism and confusion.  

Thorkil Sonne, a Danish entrepreneur and father of an autistic son, created the first consulting service to help autistic adults find employment doing the kind of detail-oriented -- some might say obsessive -- tasks that many autistic people excel at.   He said he’s not just trying to help employ a group of young adults who are often left out of the workforce but who have urgently needed skills, but to change the image of autism from one of disability to special ability.

Call it the dandelion phenomena.

On your lawn, the delicate flowers on sturdy stalks are regarded as pesky weeds  On a plate at a fancy restaurant seasoned with lemon and olive oil, their leaves make for a rare treat.  This is Sonne’s presiding metaphor for autistic individuals in our society: in the wrong context they can be a societal burden, in another they can slam-dunk jobs better than any neurotypicals.

Are Aspies the new face of humanity?

Such new social entrepreneurial spins on the diagnosis du jour will no doubt give many parents of kids on the spectrum new hope that those kids will grow up and find valuable employment putting their unique skills to use. Along with characters like Max on NBC’s "Parenthood" (see video of his speech running for student body president)

and the latest list of autistic celebrities claiming everyone from Bill Gates to Mozart, autism is cooler than it’s ever been. In fact, some futurists have argued that people on the spectrum are emblematic of where we are headed as a species, as humans develop deeper connections to technology, more forms of specialization, and less need for generalists.

But for parents whose children struggle to utter a word or perform the simplest task – the kids whose autism is an intellectual disability as well as a social one – there persists  a frustrating sense of invisibility.  For these families,  the new appreciation for people with high functioning autism and  Asperger's syndrome doesn’t make their day-to-day life with a disabled child any easier – or their hopes for that child's future any brighter, either.

Lessons for the classroom, and for life

At least one New York Times reader pointed out that it's not just kids with learning autism who are hurt by our increasingly cookie cutter approach to education.  Just as the universal design movement went from designing for special needs to the realization special needs illuminate universally better design principals, the arguments about how autistic people contribute to our society can reframe our understanding of how we raise our children.

“The implications of this article go beyond autism and apply to individual competencies of all kinds. Children are expected to conform to a standard academic curriculum, whereas adults succeed when the jobs they do match the specific talents and skills they personally have. I understand that children must learn to read and write. They need to acquire basic skills in mathematics. Yet, our current system has become so homework dependent that children are forced to spend much of their time struggling with their weaknesses instead of cultivating their strengths….One need not be autistic or a genius for the concepts suggested here to apply.”

In this sense, all our children are dandelions.  All need the right context to thrive and be appreciated.  The question is, are we educating all our kids in a way that gives them the sunlight and water they need?


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