Thinking outside of the box…but ‘what box?’, ask the Aspergers

I recently learned about the work of Dr Tony Attwood – a clinical psychologist known globally for his knowledge of Aspergers Syndrome. Professor Attwood considers children and adults with Aspergers Syndrome (Aspies) as having different rather than defective ways of thinking. He also believes that by viewing the special interests and different ways of thinking of Aspies as attributes it can benefit society.

It’s been suggested that Albert Einstein may have exhibited behaviour that was symptomatic of either autism or Asperger’s Syndrome – a powerful and lingering distaste of authority, coupled with his late-developing speech – however, Einstein did not exhibit any other behaviour that would have been typical of such a diagnosis. For example, he had no difficulty communicating with others and he also demonstrated the emotional capacity to develop close friendships and passionate relationships.

Einstein was undoubtedly familiar with naysayers and critics who couldn’t see his vision, things that any inventor or innovator will attest require a thick skin and perseverance, but was his behaviour really reflective of Asperger’s Syndrome or rather characteristics of a highly-intelligent inventor?

When we consider the characteristics of Asperger’s Syndrome – an abnormally intensity or focus in a special interest or hobby, valuing creativity over cooperation, perceiving errors that are not apparent to others, being honest determined, direct and speaking their mind, and having a strong sense of social justice – it’ easy to see how these can be attributed to the likes of Einstein and other innovators and entrepreneurs.

When we consider the characteristics of Asperger’s Syndrome it’ easy to see how these can be attributed to the likes of Einstein and other innovators and entrepreneurs.

American inventor Benjamin Franklin used his intelligence and perseverance to create inventions that changed the world. Franklin was born to an average family yet went on to master many disciplines and achieve fame and fortune thanks to his dedication and determination. In addition to being famous as an inventor, Franklin made his mark as a revolutionary, philanthropist, statesman, and was also a prolific writer and publisher who influenced history with his ingenuity, curiosity and creativity. Sound familiar?

Like Aspies, successful inventors share many of the same characteristics and traits, but can labelling these behaviours enable and enhance innovation? Let’s consider some of the most common mindsets that set inventors apart from the average person.

Curiosity

Endless, or as Einstein coined it, perpetual curiosity is an essential trait for inventors. Successful inventors and innovators are always asking questions and seeking answers to problems, even when the answers or problems seem impossible. If they are not able to understand something, the successful inventor will keep trying to figure it out in different ways and will never give up until they arrive at an answer. It is this curiosity, determination and perseverance, which create and build knowledge and ultimately form ideas.

A bias towards action

Successful inventors have a bias towards taking action. This involves a shift in thinking, which means being less inclined to procrastinate and sit on a great idea and always being prepared to seize opportunities that present themselves. Inventors know that it’s never too early to test their theories/ ideas/ inventions and to get feedback.

Collaboration

In order to get feedback and to build on ideas you need a strong network of collaborators. Inventors and innovators are classic do-it-yourself types, but hoarding ideas can mean inhibiting the opportunity to improve them.

But these mindsets are not exclusive to the inventors – designers also use similar approaches, and thanks to the founders of IDEO, ‘design thinking’ is now recognised as an approach to creative problem solving and innovation. Designers are constantly exploring and experimenting at the limits of their knowledge and ability, enabling them to see things differently.

So perhaps the characteristics and traits once thought to be eccentric, abnormal or even defective, are in fact now becoming the norm. As the complexity, scale and impact of the global challenges we face ever increases, so too does the need for changing our approach to solving them.

Dr Tony Attwood suggests that in the future some of our major problems will be solved by people with Asperger’s – someone who thinks outside of the box.

“In Aspergers, they say ‘what box?’ I think we need to embrace and encourage their particular abilities because our future may be based on such individuals.” Dr Tony Attwood

Whether it be the Aspies, Einsteins or Franklins solving our problems in the future, there’s no doubt that different ways of thinking and viewing the world, are attributes that can benefit us all.

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