This profile was prepared when Thorkil Sonne was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2009.
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.