Thorkil Sonne is transforming the way society perceives autism—from viewing it as a handicap to recognizing that it can become a competitive advantage. By demonstrating that autistic people can not only function in the business world, but can thrive as specialists in certain types of work, he is offering an often isolated population the opportunity for active, productive and fulfilling lives.
The New Idea
Thorkil Sonne is turning the handicaps of autism into a competitive advantage in business, and opening up new opportunities for autistic adults. He has created a for-profit software testing company, Specialisterne, which assesses and employs high-functioning autistic adults and uses their special skills to out-perform the market and offer an often isolated group of people opportunities for active, productive lives. Attention to detail, precision, and unerring focus are qualities that come bundled with the disabilities of autism and make autistic people particularly adept in certain fields. Autistic individuals have markedly different vocational needs than other developmentally disabled people, and Thorkil is providing a working environment where their skills are capitalized upon and it is “normal” to have autism. He has built an office culture that caters to their particular needs while boosting independence, confidence, and cognitive development. Employees of Thorkil’s company begin to identify themselves as “specialists” rather than “autistics,” turning the focus to their capabilities rather than their disabilities. He has created a sister citizen organization, Specialist People Foundation, to help meet the high demand for international expansion (with requests in hand from more than 50 countries), broaden his model to incorporate other fields of employment, and develop new programs for lower-functioning autistic people.
Close to one percent of the world’s population exhibits symptoms of autism. A misunderstood disorder (not a mental illness), it spans widely varying levels of severity and often goes undiagnosed in its milder forms. The autism spectrum varies from the severest conditions, where those with the disorder cannot live independently, to the mildest form called Asberger’s or Asberger syndrome, which was not defined as a disorder until 1994 and can seem little more than extreme social awkwardness. Autism leads to difficulties in relationships, communication, understanding of social subtleties (such as irony and sarcasm), tics and repetitive motions, and a need for stringent routines and rules.
Autistic adults often have little opportunity for independence—they are written off—and they have a low quality of life. Most people with Asberger’s have normal to higher than average intelligence, and their awareness of their lack of opportunity—and their low expectations—often leads to depression. Most autism therapies focus on molding a person to fit into social situations. Few make reverse adaptations: changing circumstances and perceptions in society at large and in the working world to suit the needs of people with autism and allowing them more and better opportunities for integration in the wider world. Autistics are generally defined by their disability and what skills they lack, rather than what they have to offer. Limited ability to function in social settings coupled with particular personality characteristics, including trouble coping with stress, a need for clearly delineated tasks, and lack of flexibility, makes them difficult to employ. Autistic people also fare poorly in high-pressure job interview settings, where social norms and ease in conversation may be weighed as heavily as skill sets.
In addition, research on adults with autism indicates that most traditional vocational rehabilitation programs are ineffective for autistics. Employment itself, however, carries great benefits for autistic people: some of the little research available on autistic people in the workforce indicates that some supported employment initiatives may actually improve the cognitive performance of adults with autism and generally improve their quality of life. Individuals with the disorder have markedly different vocational needs from those of people with other developmental disorders or disabilities.
Compared with adults with other disabilities, some seventy-five percent of whom are typically unemployed in developed country settings, approximately ninety percent of autistic adults are unemployed. Lifetimes of joblessness, coupled in the usual case with financial dependence on the state, result in huge economic losses attributable to autism. Recent estimates indicate that such losses are in the range of US$4.7M over the lifetime of one person with autism, some eighteen percent of which are associated with lost productivity for a high functioning autistic.
Thorkil is broadening perceptions of normality and providing a neglected population with the tools to be active, independent contributors, through a company designed to capitalize on the unique characteristics of the autism disorder. Competing at market terms, his company Specialisterne, and partner foundation are bridging the autistic community and the business world in a way that is unprecedented in Denmark or elsewhere in the world. Drawing upon an extensive IT background, Thorkil has built a company that focuses specifically on providing autistic people with engaging employment, a supportive work environment, and the skills they require to succeed in the working world.
Thorkil begins by seeking out and measuring the skills of potential employees through a five-month assessment and training program, which was initially funded by municipal authorities. Mild autism disorders are often bundled with a set of skills that are particularly well suited to some careers. The difficulties associated with the disorder, including problems in understanding social cues, discomfort with team work, and hypersensitivity to noise, are generally coupled with other qualities—high motivation, exceptional ability to focus on a given task, persistency, and high learning ability—skills any employer would value. Precision, attention to detail, structured work style, and patient acceptance of repetitive tasks are particularly relevant to jobs in the IT field, including software testing. Starting with the understanding that autistic people are very gifted at systems and linear construction, Thorkil began using the Lego construction toys that many autistics loved as a children as a basic tool to discern their skill levels. Specialisterne’s assessment and training staff, several of whom are practitioners schooled in other autism therapies, do not ask direct questions (since autism is generally accompanied by anxiety and difficulty in direct communication), but they use the toys to observe and interpret abilities and motivation. Taking advantage of that use of Lego toys, unintended by their producer, Thorkil has also built an ongoing partnership with Lego to help support his work. In addition to the technical knowledge necessary for software testing jobs, the training program covers a very wide range of topics, including how to approach a manager and how to prepare a CV.
The workplace choices that Specialisterne offers are unusually responsive to its employees’ needs. Most of its employees work on a project by project, freelance basis and can choose their working base—some working at their homes, others at Specialisterne’s offices, and most of them in Specialisterne’s clients’ offices. Seventy percent of the firm’s employees work on customer premises, a telling testimony to the success of his training. Thorkil has found that creating a comfortable working environment spurs improvement in behavior and function “Autistics are social,” he notes, “If they are comfortable; things viewed as “autistic traits” really just need a bit more understanding.” Specialisterne’s office culture caters to the requirements of autistic workers, from structured working methods, clear instructions, and limited stress situations to working hours adjusted to individual capacities. Personal support and personalized training and skill development program facilitate a comfortable transition into the workforce.
When a company begins to work with Specialisterne, a contact person is appointed who is empathetic to the skills and limitations of autistic people and trained in the most effective and practices for working with them. Other company employees are given a short introduction to autism, and things to keep in mind when working with autistic people, and feedback is regularly by client companies. Several client companies have reported, perhaps not surprisingly, that their employees who are in frequent contact with the autistic software testers have begun to speak more clearly and directly with one another as a result of working with people who require a very explicit style of communication.
Thorkil is emphatically committed to offering Specialisterne’s services as an equal—or better yet, superior—competitor with other, traditional software companies. He is quick to dismiss any suggestion that “charity,” “cheap labor,” or “sheltered workplace” considerations should be taken into account in decisions to use his company’s services. He doesn’t fail to note, however, that Specialisterne’s employees are unusually focused in repetitive testing assignments, and that their fault rate in data conversion is 0.5 percent, compared with a typical 5.0 percent fault rate in other firms engaged in performing data conversion.
Thorkil has an extensive background in the IT field, and on the day that he signed his resignation letter from his long-time employer, he also signed a contract with his former firm, who became Specialisterne’s first client. He initiated his new endeavor in Aarhus, Denmark, and he has subsequently established a sister company in Copenhagen. Currently, his companies have twenty-five clients who are serviced by forty-four Specialisterne staff members, and twenty additional staff members are now in training. In 2008, his companies earned the equivalent of US$3.3M in revenue, resulting in a profit in 2008 of US$170,000.
Having demonstrated the effectiveness of Specialisterne’s concept, Thorkil has stepped back from the post of CEO in order to focus most of his energies on spurring the global spread of his “idea” through his sister foundation. As noted above, there is great interest in introducing the Specialisterne concept sin other geographical settings. New companies using that concept have already “sprouted” in Sweden, Belgium, and Israel, and two such companies, drawing on Thorkil’s inspiration and informal guidance, are being launched in the United States and as many as four in the Netherlands. Thorkil is also working on securing grant funding from companies, universities, and civic groups to enable him to introduce his model in four additional countries, including the United Kingdom.
To hasten the spread of his idea, he is also exploring the possibility of licensing franchisees. To achieve maximum impact, he is establishing a new management model in which daughter companies will be launched under the foundation’s auspices, and external companies that complete a certification process will be permitted to use his logo. He is also building a complementary program that help inject his model into other businesses not under the direct purview of his own organizations. He is also experimenting with tweaking the criteria used in recruiting new employees to focus on personality types, recruiting for specific qualities rather than explicitly seeking autistic people, in order to avoid any possible “charity for the disabled” consideration in decisions to use his companies’ services.
Many other fields of endeavor, in addition to software testing, are well suited for autistic employees—pharmacy, accounting, motor repair, and piano tuning, to cite only a few examples. Thorkil plans to use his foundation to expand into at least a few new fields. (He estimates that one to five percent of the tasks undertaken by business firms could make good use of his employees’ skill sets.) Thorkil is also investigating possibilities for extending the reach of his approach to the large population of lower-functioning autistics through a three-year youth training program. That undertaking would utilize current autistic employees of Specialisterne as teachers and incorporate Thorkil’s hands-on assessment strategy in helping prepare the young people for active roles in society. Using autistic people teach other autistic people, he suspects, would reinforce his earlier finding that a comfortable, accepting environment—in which certain behaviors are not only normal and understood, but expected and valued—has as immensely positive impact on the functioning, happiness, and employment prospects of autistic people.
Thorkil had little understanding of the issues and particulars of the autistic spectrum disorders until he had an autistic child. His son, now twelve, would sit on a swing but never play with other children, and he had trouble with conversational exchanges. Reverse-engineering from his son’s future, he saw very limited opportunities for dignified employment for his son and very limited chances for autistic people to become active, contributing members of society. Thorkil and his wife were heartbroken at the paucity of options for their son—not only were there no outlets for his potential, but most people doubted the possibility of his having an enjoyable life. Thorkil wanted to “create a space” for his son—“I don’t want to fix him, I don’t want to change him, I simply want there to be a space for him,” he said. Thorkil saw that his son—and other autistics—possessed considerable skills, including excellent memory and an astonishing eye for detail, along with their disabilities.
Upon learning of his son’s disorder, Thorkil joined autism organizations in Denmark, soon ascending to leadership positions and helping chair housing facilities for people with Asberger’s. While involved in that work, he met a young teenage autistic who was very bright and highly skilled at computers, but was living with his gift lying idle, having been given an “early retirement” pension at the age of eighteen. Thorkil decided to “hand in the company car” and leave his job as technical director of a Danish software company in 2004 after realizing that many autistics, including the young man at the housing facility, possessed skills in perfect alignment with those required to be an excellent software tester. Unable to find a traditional bank loan, he built Specialisterne on capital he acquired from re-mortgaging his family home, and he convinced his former employer to be his first client.