Thorkil Sonne, Putting the Autistic to Work

by jdroth on 1 July 2011

Earlier this week at the New York Times Opinionator blog, David Bornstein wrote about new initiatives to match some autistic adults to jobs that suit them. The autistic’s mental quirks make it tough to find suitable jobs, and her difficulty with social situations can create conflicts in the workplace. As a result, adults with autism have trouble finding work, and when they do get jobs, they often have trouble keeping them.

From the Wikipedia: Autism is a disorder of neural development characterized by impaired social interaction and communication, and by restricted and repetitive behavior.

Bornstein’s article highlights the work of Danish entrepreneur Thorkil Sonne. When his youngest child was diagnosed with autism in 2000, Sonne and his wife were worried about his future in society. They wanted him to grow into a happy adult. Rather than leave things to chance, Sonne created a company that could help his son and others like him.

In 2004, Sonne started Specialisterne in Copenhagen. Specialisterne isn’t a charity; it’s a for-profit business designed to draw upon the strengths of its autistic employees instead of dwelling upon their weaknesses. Because folks with autism tend to be methodical, detail-oriented, and have excellent memories — and because they often prefer to work on their own — they make good software testers. Specialisterne employees help large corporations (like Microsoft, Oracle, and Nokia) hone their products.

Here’s how Sonne explained his philosophy to the Harvard Business Review in 2008:

You have to get the most from employees, especially when labor is scarce. Our sector is crying out for manpower, but Specialisterne has many job seekers knocking on the door. The key is to find situations that fit employees’ personalities and ambitions, not force everybody into one mold. That just causes stress, and workplaces already produce too much of that.

Specialisterne had $3 million in revenues in 2010 (and earned a small profit), but Sonne isn’t content employing autistic workers in his native Denmark. He wants to take the business global, to Iceland and Poland and Brazil and the United States.

Best of all, Specialisterne is giving purpose and employment to those who’ve been unable to find it in the workplace. The New York Times article highlights one 50-year-old man with Asperger’s syndrome who struggled for more than a decade to find a job. He could never find a place where he fit in. Now, though, he finally feels like he belongs.

Read more about Thorkil Sonne and his company in profiles from Wired and The Atlantic. Chicago-based Aspiritech does similar work in the U.S.

[The New York Times Opinionator blog: For some with autism, jobs to match their talents]

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Peggy July 3, 2011 at 03:33

What an inspiring article! I love the fact that this focuses on the ability of the person rather than their disability. As a family with a now 25-year old son with Down Syndrome, who has spent his entire life overseas, with the likelihood of moving back to the US in four years, I find this especially encouraging and hope that society will soon come to accept people for who they are as individuals with the same hopes and desires as everyone else.

Thanks for sharing and Happy 4th!


2 Kelly August 25, 2011 at 14:31

Peggy, I agree, I think society needs a paradigm shift…this business model acknowledges that people are not all the same. We all have different capabilities, and every kind of person has value to society in a different way. I think it’s brilliant because it really is a completely blue ocean market…i.e., Specialistern won’t encounter competition because no one else is even looking in that direction, they’ve created a new job market!


3 Tess The Bold Life July 3, 2011 at 14:46

This just goes to show anything is possible! Thanks for sharing that with us.


4 PXTCody July 5, 2011 at 19:41

Very cool business idea. I love the idea that everyone has value, we just need to help some people find it!


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