Several years ago my daughter Charlotte, who has autism, was invited to a princess party. All the other five-year-old girls were renting princess costumes, getting their hair done, wearing make-up. But she refused to be a princess -- it's just not her. So Charlotte chose to go to the princess party as a scary dragon with a long tail and giant claws. She announced her arrival at the party with a roar, "I'm going to eat all the princesses!"
She didn't hang out with the other girls in their tiaras, but she chatted to the grown-ups for hours about dinosaurs. She didn't want her face painted and she ate all the cupcakes. She had a great time. She was alone in the way she looked and behaved, but she found a way to fit into the party that worked for everyone else, too.
As Charlotte has informed me, "everyone has a little bit of autism." I know what she means. As a local general manager with public relations agency Hill+Knowlton Strategies, I have some employees who, like Charlotte, don't always follow the rules. They know far more about their areas of expertise than I ever will. They are quirky, brilliant and often bored by small talk and mediocrity. As in all professional services firms, people are our assets. Our clients' challenges mean we need to hire people who have diverse ways of approaching problems. I love working with these people, but it isn't always intuitive.
One member of my team recently went through the Belbin character profile. Her report stated: "Possibly a difficult person to supervise. So do not attempt it." We laughed, but it's quite true. What my eight-year-old daughter teaches me every day is how to manage these sometimes "unmanageable" experts (and it's still a work-in-progress):
Someone insinuated to me that evolution will get rid of autism. I think that perhaps evolution will rule out the rest of us. We're encouraged too much towards mediocrity by being "all-rounders." Charlotte cannot ride a bike, swim or throw a ball. But by age five she could describe how medieval musical instruments are made and would talk all day about our solar system.
I may be in the minority, but I'm not into the idea of all-rounders being representative of humanity's highest form of being. That's why I've spent 13 years at a company that embraces boldness and diversity, and is not afraid to take risks.
Charlotte's diagnostic assessment of autism was made based as much on what she could do as what she could not. That nuance was lost on me until recently. Before Charlotte, I categorized people into those who got it, and those who didn't. The dazzling full spectrum of talents and creativity was invisible to me. Charlotte's unique way of thinking about life has made me realize that not everyone sees things the way you expect them to, and that has opened me up to a much richer perspective in my management responsibilities.