Danish entrepreneur helps people with autism get jobs that require focus, attention to detail

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.

The Autism Advantage [NYT] (via Kottke)


      1. Yeah, and I’ve long suspected that “Unable to do basic math” is a job requirement for those jobs.

  1. This was a very interesting read, but the full article left me in a much less optimistic mood than the excerpt. Still, it speaks to a Star Trek-like future where everyone is able to do something that suits them perfectly and which (hopefully) they enjoy. 

    The problem here is that as the article says, only 1 out 6 applicants is found to be suitable for the company. The rest presumably go back to living in their parents’ basements, unable to find work. I do applaud them for helping that 1/6 because it’s always seemed insane to me that those on the autism spectrum with the abilities described have not been more widely valued in certain jobs (though it’s likely that many through history have found these niches on their own, and nobody knew they were autistic – eccentric, perhaps).

    Myself I feel as if I’ve got the worst of both worlds… severely lacking social skills and awareness from Asperger’s, but no special abilities like patience and concentration. Of course I must say that while this is how I live my life, it’s not actually true – I do have those abilities, but I must have a worthwhile challenge to use them on, and neither self-motivated projects or menial tasks assigned by others are challenges that work for me. There’s a very specific niche that my abilities fill within science research, but I am unable to convince anyone to give me a job that would use those abilities (or any other job) or to give me the chance to continue doing that in academia (which is clearly where I truly belong). 

    The 24th century can’t come soon enough. I hope that initiatives like this expand quickly and help people who are not being given a chance meet their potential (myself included). I know that in order to get my chance I need to reach out and grab for it – but partly because of the other problems Asperger’s gives me (and partly because of the economy), every time I have done so I have failed. A little help along these lines is almost always going to be required (if you have a job for me in SoCal, [myBBusername]@gmail.com). Maybe… maybe I should start a similar initiative here, myself…

    1. Please do something, as it would be a shame if you didn’t.  As wonderful as it is to catch a break and find a perfect fit, it is an exceedingly rare occurrence when you haven’t put yourself out there in some way.

    2. I must have a worthwhile challenge to use them on, and neither self-motivated projects or menial tasks assigned by others are challenges that work for me.

      Neurotypical people feel exactly the same way about work.

    3. I’ve often thought hand type-setting and other tasks related to printing the old-fashioned way would be a perfect environment for someone very detail oriented. With a resurgence in this niche-publishing form, and public venues that teach the skills, it might be perfect for an Asperger. I hear old-timers would get an initiation from teachers in typesetting that involved dumping a case of type on the floor (for them to reassemble)!

        1. Yes! But old-school typesetting in particular requires precision, memory and repetition and only a modicum of design skill. Imagine someone who could call up from memory, like bishophick’s 8-year-old, the particulars of an obscure face that no one else can remember the name of!

    4. I think a lot of folks today expect the things they do for work will be more than just a paycheck. In reality you do what you need to do to survive on your own, and if you also get personal satisfaction at some point, that’s awesome. Dream big but you still have to live in the real world.

    5. 1 out of 6 is not bad. When we interview candidates at my job the ratio of suitable applicants to non-suitable is about 1 out of 30. And when I’ve interviewed for jobs, I’ve gone through many, many interviews before finding a place that would hire me. You just can’t give up, the more you try the easier it gets. And it takes a long time for most of us to find a place that’s a good fit. Not to take away from your situation, it may very well be much more difficult, but just know it’s something most of us go through.

  2. My 8 year old was recently diagnosed with Asperger’s (which we suspected for awhile).  He’s high functioning, but I have been wondering what his life will be like as an adult.  I don’t doubt that he has skills that some employers would find valuable.  An eight year old that has memorized the name and flag for every country in the world and can tell you anything about the 2012 hurricane season including hurricane names, paths, duration, deaths, etc., and can identify specific storms based on nothing more than a satellite photo is going to be able to do interesting things in the workplace.  Some possibilities: knowing the location of any item in a store, knowing processes and workflows backwards and forwards, play testing video games, gathering lots of facts on a given topic, etc.  The problems are not the work and the skills – it’s everything else.  Will he remember to go to work?  Will he do the work he’s been asked to do or go off on some tangent that interests him more?  Will he remember to shower and change his clothes?  How will he interact with other employees?  How will he  deal when the work environment becomes hectic or stressful?  

    1.  Hi, I work for a disability employment company. We exist to help with the concerns you’ve listed there, and remove any barriers that hold somebody back from getting the job they want (for free, we survive mostly off government sponsorship)

      After the job is secured, we don’t go away. We regularly talk to the employee and employer to make sure it’s going okay and deal with any issues that come up (like his interaction with other staff or the work environment being stressful).

      It sounds like your son will have a lot of careers open to him. The single factor that will help him get and keep a job he enjoys is having a supportive family. It sounds like he definitely has that. For now, don’t worry too much about it. When he’s done with school/university, if he needs help, there’s probably a company like us in your area who’ll be able to assist.

  3. I know a lot of successful aspies in customer service and public-facing jobs, as well as in heavy tech positions. I think it’s the neurotypicals who need retraining: how not to be dickheads to people who register a little different, socially.

  4. There are many other types of specially gifted people typically branded “disabled” by those who are not gifted, and thus sidelined by competitive society, and wasting their phenomenal gifts.

    This is a really good story about recognizing people for the things they bring to society, and properly placing them in it, instead of the delusion that all people are cookie-cut robots, and those that are different have no place nor purpose in society, and just institutionalizing them like there were something wrong with them.

    There is yet hope for mankind.

  5. Always fun to see something called “impossible” in an article about what was previously thought impossible. 

    Seriously, these are not jobs that were created specifically for these individuals. Other people were filling the jobs that they will fill.  It’s not, to me, worth putting someone on a Rain Man pedestal, one where they have to be able to achieve things that others can’t.  Seems to be another case with the same disadvantages as the model minority archetype, for the members of the group that don’t fit the mold.

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