Autistic persons love the nitty gritty

The Danish employment agency Specialisterne is specialised in jobs for autistic people. The founder of the agency, Thorkil Sonne, believes that autistic people are specially qualified for work that requires a great amount of concentration and meticulousness.

In an unforgettable scene of the Hollywood blockbuster “Rain Man”, Dustin Hoffman amazes his brother by remembering every single card handed out at a Black Jack table. Since then, a number of documentaries have brought attention to autistic people and, in particular, to their capacity to develop extraordinary gifts.

Thorkil Sonne, the Danish father of an autistic boy, realised that this potential could be used as an asset in the job market and founded the specialised employment agency Specialsterne in 2004. Specialsterne was the first agency in the world to establish a business model which places people with autism. The firm has already won various prizes for its model and is also used as a Case Study at the Harvard Business School. Since 2009, the agency has been running a training program for young autistic persons aged between 16 and 24 years.

Creating capabilities and not just disabilities

Sonne’s son Lars was diagnosed with Infantile Autism when he was six years old. One day, Lars made a drawing of a map which was almost an exact copy of the original. The astonishing fact was that Lars had only thrown a brief glance at the map beforehand. It was then that Sonne recognised that autism creates “capabilities and not just disabilities”. But what  possibility would his son have to  be able to get a job and live his life independently?

With this motivation in mind, but no former business experience, Sonne took a loan and created Specialsterne. The risk has paid off: the agency has already given 170 autistic people a new job perspective up until 2010. Among the clients of Specialsterne are renowned firms such as Microsoft, Siemens or the Swedish financial service provider Nordea as well as TDC, the leading Danish telecommunications provider.

Autistic people are especially gifted for software-tests, testing mobile phone applications and general programming. But Sonne also sees a lot of potential in the tax or auditing sector. GlobalConnect has recently tested some candidates of Specialsterne. The firm is extremely pleased with their performance: “Our test people are extremely meticulous in their work. This is very important as these tests have no fault tolerance,” says the Manager of GlobalConnect.

Superfluous job requirements  

The downside of autism is that autistic people may experience problems when it comes to social interaction, team work or flexibility. Today, these soft skills are among the general job requirements but there are situations where soft skills play little or no role at all. Autism is also designated by the term “savant syndrome”, i.e. a syndrome which creates an extreme specialisation in one particular field. The focus of Sonne’s agency is to leverage this potential. “Specialist” is also the agency brand (Danish: specialister).

A day off to regenerate

Autistic people develop an extraordinary ability to concentrate. The negative effect of this phenomenon is that autists cannot properly process or filter all the sensual stimuli and the resulting “sensual overload” becomes very strenuous to them. Autistic people prefer a very calm environment where every pencil or paper clip. stays exactly at its designated place. “In 25 hours, autistic people use the same amount of energy as other people would in 40 hours,” explains Thorkil Sonne. That is why Specialisterne’s candidates work only 80% and use the extra time to regenerate.

High requirement profile

However, autistic people are not completely unable to develop social skills. “When they feel secure at their workplace, autistic people can also be very social,” says Sonne. Some of his candidates have already bonded and spend their spare time together. “This is one of my greatest success,” says Sonne. Specialisterne is not a “sheltered workshop” but regards itself as company with highly specialised candidates.

Autism only is not an automatic entry ticket and the requirement profile is demanding: First, candidates have to show their abilities in a five month assessment course. “We have to be absolutely certain that our candidates can really meet the job requirements of our clients,” says Sonne. Candidates should also show a high work discipline, get up early in the morning and respect the working hours. Two out of three candidates are chosen in the end.

One million jobs

„We can create a world free of barriers, stereotypes and discrimination,“ says Sonne. He projects a million jobs worldwide and has already expanded his business abroad, namely to Scotland, Iceland and Japan. In the rest of Europe, there only a few firms who specifically hire autistic people: Asperger Informatik in Switzerland, Autest in the Netherlands and Left is Right in Sweden. “Left is Right” has consulted Specialisterne as it plans an expansion to Germany.

To enable other companies to adapt this business concept, Sonne has created the Specialist People Foundation. It offers a training program which supports and enables other companies who wish to familiarise with autism and learn how to leverage autistic capabilities in the best possible form.

Text: M. Plattner - 09/2010

Translation: Michel Benedetti