Thorkil Sonne

Organization: 
Specialisterne Foundation
Country: 
USA

The Specialist People Foundation trains people with autism to become information technology (IT) consultants for Specialisterne, a market-driven IT consulting company providing job opportunities that capitalize on the unique characteristics of Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Focus: Education, Training, Employment
Geographic Area of Impact: Denmark, Scotland, Iceland, Switzerland, Poland, Ireland, USA
Model: Hybrid Non-Profit
Number of Direct Beneficiaries: +100 (2012)
Annual Budget: US$ 780,000 (2011)
Percentage Earned Revenue: 100%
Recognition: Social Entrepreneur of the Year, 2012

Background
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a complex and pervasive developmental disability that affects a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others. Autism is defined by a certain set of behaviours and affects individuals differently and to varying degrees. People with ASD are generally defined by their disability and what skills they lack, rather than what they have to offer. Limited ability to function in social settings coupled with particular personality characteristics, including trouble coping with stress, a need for clearly delineated tasks, and lack of flexibility, makes them difficult to employ. They fare poorly in high-pressure job interview settings, where social norms and ease in conversation may be weighed as heavily as skill sets.

Innovation and Activities
Specialist People Foundation (SPF) is broadening perceptions of normality and providing a neglected population with the tools to be active, independent contributors, through the Specialisterne company model, which capitalizes on the unique characteristics of people with ASD. Competing at market terms, Specialisterne is bridging the ASD community and business world in an unprecedented way.

Specialisterne focuses on providing employment for people with ASD, a supportive work environment, and the skills required in the labour market. To start, the IT sector has been the focus with services provided within software testing, data entry, quality control and logistics, where consultants can perform valuable services at or above the market rate. Specialisterne is now moving into other businesses like health, pharmaceuticals and finance.

Specialisterne first evaluates potential employees through an assessment and training programme, funded by municipal authorities or grants. Mild autism disorders are often bundled with a set of skills that are particularly well suited to some careers. The difficulties associated with the disorder, including problems in understanding social cues, discomfort with teamwork and hypersensitivity to noise, are generally coupled with other valuable qualities like high motivation, exceptional ability to focus on a task, persistency and high learning ability. Precision, attention to detail, structured work style, and patient acceptance of repetitive tasks are particularly relevant to jobs in the IT field.

The workplaces that Specialisterne offers are particularly responsive to its ASD consultants’ needs. Most employees work in Specialisterne clients’ offices catering to the requirements of the consultants. Personal support, personalized training and skill development programmes facilitate a comfortable transition into the workforce.

The Entrepreneur
Thorkil Sonne’s commitment to expanding opportunities for people with autism began with his son Lars. When Sonne and his wife learned that Lars had autism they worried that he would face a life where he would be constantly misunderstood, isolated due to his ASD difficulties, and never have a normal working life. As a technical director in an IT company, Sonne became active in the Danish Autism Association and, with the support of his family, financially committed to establishing Specialisterne (The Specialists) to tailor a working environment geared towards people with ASD, enabling them to use their skills within the business sector. His vision was to create new possibilities for people with ASD and influence society to adopt a more positive attitude towards people with ASD. The goal now is to enable 1 million jobs for people with autism and similar challenges.