Gareth Cook tells the story of Thorkil Sonne, founder of a Danish social enterprise called Specialisterne ("the specialists"), which helps place people with autism in jobs that demand a degree of focus and detail-orientation that's impossible to find among the neurotypical. Specialisterne began because Sonne's son, Lars, has autism, and Sonne saw that he was eminently suited to many tasks, and that performing them made him happy and did useful work, too. Now Specialisterne is a web of social enterprises that does everything from training to placement, and Sonne is pondering a move to the USA.
To his father, Lars seemed less defined by deficits than by his unusual skills. And those skills, like intense focus and careful execution, were exactly the ones that Sonne, who was the technical director at a spinoff of TDC, Denmark’s largest telecommunications company, often looked for in his own employees. Sonne did not consider himself an entrepreneurial type, but watching Lars — and hearing similar stories from parents he met volunteering with an autism organization — he slowly conceived a business plan: many companies struggle to find workers who can perform specific, often tedious tasks, like data entry or software testing; some autistic people would be exceptionally good at those tasks. So in 2003, Sonne quit his job, mortgaged the family’s home, took a two-day accounting course and started a company called Specialisterne, Danish for “the specialists,” on the theory that, given the right environment, an autistic adult could not just hold down a job but also be the best person for it.