Thorkil Sonne
Ashoka Fellow since 2009   |   Denmark

Thorkil Sonne

Square Foundation
Thorkil Sonne founded Specialisterne in 2004 and Square Foundation in 2008 as a not-for-profit organisation to replicate the Specialisterne concept. In 2023 the ownership was transferred to…
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Thorkil Sonne is the founder of Specialisterne & Specialisterne Foundation. The overarching Specialisterne Foundation works globally to transform labor markets to become inclusive towards autistic and neurodivergent persons and ensures that they are thriving at workplaces. Regional Specialisterne chapters work more hands-on with assessing and generating employment for high-functioning autistic adults and highlighting their special skills to out-perform the labor market. 

Featured in Rippling: How Social Entrepreneurs Spread Innovation Throughout the World, by Bev Schwartz (2012)

Specialisterne Foundation
This description of Thorkil Sonne's work was prepared when Thorkil Sonne was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2009.


Thorkil Sonne founded Specialisterne in 2004 and Square Foundation in 2008 as a not-for-profit organisation to replicate the Specialisterne concept. In 2023 the ownership was transferred to Specialisterne Global who will continue to develop the Specialisterne concept while Square Foundation will focus on removing the root causes for the lack of inclusion.
Square Foundation builds on a legacy from two decades as thought leaders in neurodiversity in workplaces and communities with Specialisterne as proof of concept. We estimate that more than 20.000 jobs have been enabled through Specialisterne in twenty-six countries and hundreds of companies who have been inspired or trained by Specialisterne across the world.
Neurodiversity is a concept where neurological differences are to be recognized and respected as any other human variation. These differences can include those labeled with Dyspraxia, Dyslexia, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Dyscalculia, Autistic Spectrum, Tourette Syndrome, and others. We use the term ‘neurodistinct’ people to describe this group while others use terms such as neurodivergent or neuroatypical people.
Thorkil Sonne is promoting neurodiversity in minds and systems for a world that is fair and square for everyone.

The New Idea

Being different is nothing new. We all know how it feels. Everyone has been in situations where we feel like we don’t belong. We ask ourselves: How do I behave; how should I act? I don’t understand what is expected of me!
We use complicated words like neurodivergent, neurodistinct, and neurodiverse to describe a simple and obvious fact: Everybody’s different. Some, a little more than others. We estimate that 20% of all people have traits of autism, ADHD, dyslexia or similar conditions, but it doesn’t stop there. It’s a wide spectrum that reaches outside of those 20%. As we said, everybody is different in some way. How open and appreciative we are of this diversity is a good measure of how open, inclusive and creative our societies are.
We prosper when we are open to all kinds of minds.

The Problem

Square Foundation seeks to mitigate the pains and obstacles that neurodistinct individuals and families experience, enable networks and collaboration, and unlock individuals’ potential to improve lives and society in general.

One out of five people in any population and workplace, school or civil society organisation may feel like the square pegs not fitting into the round holes of the systems they are in. This is often the situation for many neurodistinct people who face exclusion and high rates of un/underemployment.

We believe that neurodistinct people represent an important and natural part of human brain variation and should have equal opportunities as any other person, but unfortunately, they often spend a lot of resources on ‘masking’ - pretending to fit in – which can lead to exhaustion and mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.
We all know someone in the family, among friends or in the local community who is neurodistinct – but often we feel uncomfortable and don’t have the tools to taking action to support them.

Most companies have policies and programs on diversity, inclusion and equality – so why does it seems to be so difficult for neurodistinct people to thrive?

We believe that neurodistinct people go under the radar in most companies because of the way we think and the systems that we have set up in the labour market. All companies want their employees to thrive – so why is it that as an example up to 80% of autistic people are unemployed or underemployed in a time with shortage of talent?

We believe that the root causes for the present situation can be found in the way we have organised and streamlined systems in workplaces, schools, governments and the civil society to fit the majority of people instead of creating neurodiverse environment where everyone can thrive.
The reality is that we’re all biased. Our actions are based on our mental models which trigger us to act intuitively and often lead to unconscious biases that can be counterproductive towards people who are not like us. Negative mental models are often the underlying root causes for lack of neurodiversity. Therefore, we must influence mental models through continuous storytelling. We encourage you to promote positive mental models, such as
• Everyone is good at something and has the right to contribute
• Differences should be celebrated as collective strengths
• Systems must fit people’s individual needs

The Strategy

We are seeing now is the birth of a global movement of neurodiversity in the labour market, school system, civil society and governments across the globe.

We are proud and honoured to play a role as pioneers in this movement. We are still learning but we have learned enough to say that there is no reason to wait anymore if you want to be part of collaborate effort towards more sustainable businesses and societies through neurodiversity.
Square Foundation is working on co-creating a concept as an encouragement for everyone to enable environments where neurodistinct and neurotypical people alike are being our best self and bringing out the best in each other’s.

Our ambition is to inspire companies to drive neurodiversity in minds and systems in workplaces, schools, communities and governments in markets across the world.

We are in the experimentation phase for testing a concept promoting neurodiversity in minds and systems with IKEA supported by Ashoka and IKEA Social Entrepreneurship. You will find information related to the concept on our website when it has been tested.
Square Foundation is working with
• Promoting and driving awareness initiatives and knowledge sharing around neurodistinct individuals’ experiences.
• Establishing a strong presence as a thought-leader and enabler in the ecosystem for all individuals and groups,
• Challenging existing barriers, bringing mindset change to impact the system.
Square Foundation is achieving this through
• Creating a forum and space for exchange of experiences and ideas to create understanding and destigmatising.
• Highlighting and sharing personal stories to connect with people, nourishing creativity and collaboration.
• Leveraging stakeholders and their networks to create a momentum and readiness for change.

The Person

Thorkil had little understanding of the issues until his youngest son was diagnosed as autistic. Reverse-engineering from his son’s future, he saw very limited opportunities for dignified employment and very limited chances for autistic people to become active, contributing members of society.
Upon learning of his son’s condition, Thorkil joined autism organizations in Denmark and soon became chairperson of a local branch and vice chairperson in a housing facility for autistic people. While involved in that work, he met young autistic people who were very bright and highly skilled at computers, but none of them had a meaningful job.
Thorkil decided to launch Specialisterne as a for-profit company in 2004 to prove that in the right settings, autistic people (and others facing similar challenges) can have fulfilling competitive careers.
Thorkil founded Square Foundation (initially Specialist People Foundation in 2008 which changed name to Specialisterne Foundation in 2015) now named Square Foundation) in 2008 as an umbrella organisation to replicate the Specialisterne concept and work with international organisations.
Square Foundation is associated with the UN Department of Global Communications and Thorkil is a World Economic Forum Schwab Foundation Social Entrepreneur.

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