Specialisterne: A Company on the Cutting Edge

Many adults with autism are unable to secure employment and are often overlooked for the outstanding skills that they bring to a job.  In fact, 80% of adults with autism don’t have full-time jobs – not because they can’t manage the work – but because they are considered socially unacceptable. That’s why I was thrilled to read about a Denmark company called Specialisterne. Conceived by Thorkil Sonne and his wife Annette, Specialisterne (Danish for “specialists”) hires mostly people on the autism spectrum.  Starting a business is no simple task, so why did Sonne undertake the added challenge of targeting adults with autism? The passion behind the idea is his son, Lars.

Lars was diagnosed with autism at the age of three.  At seven, he stunned his father by his ability to reproduce a table from an atlas without error!  Sonne realized that his son had skills that could be utilized as a working adult. Lars’ intense focus and careful execution were the same skills often sought after by many professionals.  Sonne realized that with the right combination of coaching, employer support and job matching, his son, and similar high functioning individuals on the autism spectrum, could have a successful personal career and yield benefits for employers. However, the search for this opportunity was fruitless. This led Sonne to quit his job, mortgage his home and start Specialisterne

Small and faced with challenges, Specialisterne has become quite successful in Denmark. The business model is unique in its recruiting and training.  For a person with a social deficit, the traditional interview doesn’t work.  Using his experience as a father (his son Lars enjoyed building blocks), Sonne figured out how to identify marketable strengths in individuals who have difficulty communicating.  During the interview, he asks applicants to follow the assembly directions in the Lego Mindstorms Kits and watches them build robots.  This turned out to be a task that assessed job and social skills in individuals on the autism spectrum.  He could also evaluate skills such as reasoning, problem solving, following directions and attention to details.  Additionally, it provided an opportunity to determine if the person could work with a team.  The next step was to match the individual with a job and assign a job coach.  The job coach offers training as well as social support. 

This job coach model has been around for a long time and has been successful for many individuals with intellectual disabilities.  Specialisterne adapted this model for persons with high functioning autism and Asperger syndrome. The success of this model caught the eye of Tim Hanson, a Minnesota businessman and father of a child with ASD. Partnering together they brought the model to the United States. The Specialisterne’s goal is to employ a million people worldwide. Microsoft has also joined forces by offering financial support to begin a branch in North Dakota. But this isn’t about philanthropy; it’s about what’s good for business. 

In my experience as an educator, I’ve seen the impact of how a job can influence and increase the self esteem of a person with ASD.  As a mother, I’ve watched my son Ryan enjoy and take pride in his work. As Sonne says, “There is so much opportunity in the United States to create meaningful and productive lives for persons diagnosed with ASD.” I couldn’t agree more.

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