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Channelling autism

A Danish tech firm harnesses the power of the autistic brain


 

Channelling autismFor the first two years of his life, Lars Sonne appeared to develop normally, a happy boy, much like his older brothers. But at the age of two, roughly 10 years ago, Lars started to retreat into himself. “At kindergarten, he wouldn’t play with others,” says his father Thorkil Sonne, a Danish software executive, speaking from his office in Copenhagen. “He would only be on his own, sit on a swing for hours.” For several months, psychologists observed the boy closely, and ultimately delivered a devastating diagnosis. “We were told that our son has a lifelong disability called childhood autism,” says Sonne. “It was scary to realize how many doors would be closed to him.”

As time progressed, Sonne noted something remarkable about Lars. He had few friends—he was far too easy to bully—but he had intense, deeply cerebral interests, like astronomy, railroad systems and math. “When he starts focusing on something, he is so clever,” he says. “He can learn so much; it’s quite extraordinary.” Once, when Lars was seven, Sonne found him creating an elaborate doodle, made up of dozens of stacked boxes, numbers and acronyms. Only later, when Sonne happened to crack open an atlas on his bookshelf, did he realize that what his son had drawn was a replica, from memory, of an intricate road map of western Europe, reproduced without a single error.

By then, the extraordinary capabilities of the autistic brain had become familiar ground to Sonne. As chairman of his local autism society chapter, he spoke to dozens of parents of high-functioning kids with astonishing cognitive abilities. “Their skills were particularly strong with computers,” he says, “and they were very familiar with the Internet.” But they also faced many of the same social obstacles as Lars—difficulty interacting, an inability to read tone or body language, an intolerance of change, and an extreme sensitivity to distractions—all things that, parents feared, would render their children virtually unemployable in a conventional work setting. Everywhere, Sonne found, discourse about autism was dominated by talk of weaknesses. But when he looked at gifted young people like his son, he saw enormous wasted enthusiasm and untapped potential.

In 2004, Sonne refinanced his home and founded Specialisterne—Danish for “The Specialists”—the first company in the world whose business model caters to employees with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs). Its employees, 75 per cent of whom have some form of autism, are specialists in software testing—challenging, repetitive tasks that demand enormous accuracy and intense focus. Because of his first-hand knowledge of the software business, Sonne believed that if he could convince major companies to outsource the testing of their products to his consultants, he could save them millions in defect prevention, free up their creative employees from “the boring work,” create a profitable business, and offer meaningful work to employees with special challenges.

But first he had to find a way to make clients understand the extraordinary resources his consultants had to offer. Torben Sorensen, 30, is a typical Specialisterne employee. He has a mild form of autism called Asperger’s syndrome. “I have an ability to see when something deviates,” he told the Danish newspaper Urban DK in 2005. “It kind of leaps to the eye. It’s an ability many people don’t seem to have, but to me it’s natural.” Sorensen came to Specialisterne after his teaching career didn’t pan out. He excelled at the theoretical aspects of education, he said, but he could not seem to connect with the children. “I like working here,” he said. “I don’t have to try to be anything other than myself. At times I can become obsessed with my work and that’s fine. In another company I might be expected to make small talk and be flexible. Here I can just concentrate on my work without being considered anti-social.”

Five years in, the company now employs 60 consultants who have proven so skilled at their work they have more commissions than they can handle from multinational clients including Microsoft, CSC, Oracle and LEGO. The company’s annual revenue has increased by 50 per cent year over year; by 2007, it was pulling in over $2.3 million, and last year, the company turned a modest profit. Sonne’s long-term goal is to employ 1,000-plus employees with ASDs worldwide. “We are in contact with people or organizations in 53 countries who want Specialisterne to be established in their country,” he says. This year, the company will expand into Norway, Switzerland and Britain and, before too long, he plans to break into the U.S. and Canadian markets.

Specialisterne stands as a beacon of hope in the autism community. In recent years, ASD diagnoses have exploded in North America for reasons that remain mysterious but are thought to be the result of some combination of improved diagnostics, environmental factors and genetics. In Canada, one in 165 children is now born with autism—with symptoms that range from mild to requiring 24-7 care. “And now what’s happening,” says Sandra McKay, chair of the Autism Society Canada, “is that we’ve got a lot of adolescents and young adults who were diagnosed 10, 15 years ago who are going to be entering the workforce, and it’s like, what do we do now?”

Currently, only six per cent of adults with autism find full-time work—even though half of all individuals with ASDs are high-functioning, meaning they don’t have an intellectual disability. For this group, their greatest obstacles pertain to social expectations. The world is simply not configured to accommodate their version of “normal” behaviour.

To shed light on why so many bright people are languishing—and whether the barriers they face are real or socially constructed—David Hagner of the University of New Hampshire Institute on Disability conducted a study of successfully employed autistic adults to determine what they had in common. Overall, he said, “the comments I got from employers were almost as superlative as you can hear about a worker.”

The challenges employers reported to him were pretty consistent: for one, autistic employees generally don’t fare well in job interviews (eye contact and small talk are a challenge). They can be hypersensitive to noise, light or scent, and are often uncomfortable working in open-concept spaces. Most commonly, they work best with very specific instructions, a great deal of consistency, and advance notice of any changes to their routine. “Once employers saw these things, they realized it was a cost of doing business,” says Hagner. “But supervisors told me it’s not a greater cost than someone else. It’s just different.”

In fact, ironically, Hagner’s research found that the quirks that make social situations challenging for people with autism are often the very things that make them great employees. For instance, a person with autism, he says, is not going to get caught up in office gossip or politics. They’re not going to cut corners, or lie, or steal. Universally, these employees were said to be loyal, punctual and thorough. “I think the thing the supervisors really liked most was their work ethic,” says Hagner. “If they’re told, ‘Your break is 10 minutes,’ they would take 10 minutes. Not nine or 11. Just 10.”

The genius of Specialisterne is that it was set up to take so-called “odd” behaviour and make it the norm. “They are the ‘normals,’ ” says Sonne. “Many have never had a job before. They might not have an education, but we don’t care.” Instead of a traditional interview, Specialisterne engages prospective consultants in a five-month training process to determine where they excel. “We see their personality, their vocational, personal and social experience, and their learning profile,” says Sonne, “and we try out different set-ups and work hours and find out what kind of stress level would go well with them.” Once they’re hired, consultants typically work 25 to 30 hours per week.

Seventy per cent of their work is performed on-site at clients’ facilities. To ease the relationship, clients are given a short introduction to autism and to the firm’s culture. Specialisterne also offers a full-time, on-call response staff who are trained to deal with any situation that may arise. Disruptions, although infrequent, do happen. In one instance, a Specialisterne consultant, disturbed by an inexplicable irregularity in his work, would get up and pace the hallway between his desk and the men’s room every time it happened. The client called the support staff who stepped in to counsel the consultant. In another case, a consultant described as a brilliant mathematician would occasionally be hit with bouts of depression. On those days, he would simply get up and leave. A support person would be called upon to find a substitute.

Overwhelmingly, however, clients have expressed great satisfaction with the work Specialisterne does. Microsoft Denmark, for example, hired its consultants to test its Windows XP Media Center. “The assignment could have been solved by one of our own employees,” said Nis Bank Lorentzen, business group lead of Microsoft Denmark, “but there was a great risk that he or she would lose the ability to concentrate after repeating the assignment a couple of times. With Specialisterne, the risk is non-existent. Their ability to concentrate remains intact, even after solving the same task many times over. Furthermore, they have a fantastic ability to locate errors and aberrations.”

In December, confident that the company was on solid footing and ready to take it to the next level, Sonne sold the company to the Specialisterne People Foundation, which he created, for one Danish krone. “The role of Specialisterne is still to earn money,” he says, “but the money will not go to external sources, but to the foundation, and the foundation will use the money for creating jobs and developing new knowledge, new services.” His hope is that, by the time Lars turns 18, the world will be a little more hospitable to people like him. “My goal is to showcase or demonstrate what happens if we embrace people with autism instead of keep on thinking they are problems to our society,” he says. “Otherwise, they have no chances.”


 

Channelling autism

  1. This is the best good news story, I have heard in a long time. When we respond to peoples needs, instead of making them respond to ours, we save so many great minds from being wasted. This is a great story of hope – and a great D'oh why didn't I think of that!!

  2. Thanks for publishing this great article! School systems often are so literacy-language based which doesn't cater to many autistic children and how they learn (hands-on and often through technology). This father's belief in his son and courageous business venture is commendable. I only wish they were in our city for our own son one day :)

  3. I hope that this company and others like it can come to Canada and the US. As an American with autism, reading about this company gives me hope that people like me can and do contribute mightily to civilization. We just take a different route.

    Xenai Grant

  4. I have been looking at the idea for a while now. I am in the IT industry and also have a son with autism. There is a paper on this org available from the Harvard Business School but it is not free. Much of what is in this story can be found in this document.

  5. As a daughter of Danish Immigrants to Canada and a Special Needs Education Assistant who worked for 4 years one on one with an Autistic student, I feel a great sense of pride and gratitude for Thorkil Sonne. Finally, someone has opened the doors to those with Autism by recognizing the positive contributions they can make in society. Over the years I worked with my student, I learned to see the world through his eyes and ears…trust and understanding is all they ask for. They are some of the best years of my working career. I applaud Thorkil Sonne for building on the strengths of those with ASD, the world needs more people like him! Mary-Ann Muskett Chilliwack, B.C.

  6. My name is Dylan Chapman. I just turned 20 years old and I am a moderately autistic person. I was really interested in this article. If your company ever decides to expand to Canada I would be interested in working with you. I am working as a custodial assistant at an elementary school in Schreiber, Ontario. I enjoy my job and I hope to upgrade my skills some day. I graduated from Lake Superior High School in 2007 and I have my high school diploma. I'm interested in model trains, aircraft and traveling to big cities.

    • Dylan,
      You sound like a really good person. Thank you for writing your message here. You write well and I hope you get a chance to travel some time and see big cities, it is a lot of fun.
      David W.

  7. I'm a teacher in B.C. who has taught students with autism. This is the kind of attitude and ambition that gets us energized to teach, guide, and support those on the spectrum. What an awesome concept Sonne has for his company, one that will continue to set people up for success!! Good on ya!! Way to go!!

  8. And since awareness has increased, so does the reporting and diagnoses. It's all simply the “domino effect”. I believe very firmly that the reason the reported numbers were “lower” before is mostly due to the fact that countless individuals with a Higher Functioning Autism or Asperger's simply slipped through the cracks, as they do not exhibit the abnormalities in tone of speech as those with severe Autism. They were merely labeled as quirky ones, eccentrics, or just plain crazy, while many others turned into alcohols and drug addicts to cope with their social differences. Albert Einstein is a perfect example of the ‘social labels'; he is speculated to have had Asperger's (it wasn't “discovered” yet) and was thought by his peers and classmates to be very peculiar and crazy.

  9. I am also aware of other reasons the numbers would increase, but they are more subtle and complex and this is lengthy enough already. Genetics, as the article stated, is also a factor, but I believe it is far less of a factor then the “awareness” factor.
    In closing I will say that the numbers will continue to rise, as we have really just scratched the surface of the so called “disorder” that actuality exists within much of society.

  10. The job market has some serious flaws, as it works now the best salesman tends to get the job and if you lack social skills it is much harder to compete for a job.
    If one can find a job the problems continue, with no political skills how do you tell people what is obvious to you but not to them, that the boss's pet project has a design flaw, that the company is not planning for the inevitable downturn in the business cycle.
    The new business world demands creativity and inovation, this is something that we can help with because of our odd behavior, not in spite of it.
    All we ask is for a little trust and understanding.

  11. incredible

  12. Thank You Thorkil Sonne!

    I've been a black box (user interface) software tester for about 15 years and want to change my focus to training people who will likely do a better job than me!
    :)
    Not sure how I'm going to do this yet – anyone got any suggestions or contacts that would be interested in my talents?
    I'm planning to start some teacher training courses in the new year…and I'll start from there!

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