THORKIL SONNE Helping enterprises to employ the autistic
Inspired by his son to change societal perceptions of autism, Thorkil Sonne founded Specialisterne. The company is matching the skills of autistic adults to the needs of major companies the world over, with a goal of facilitating 1 million jobs.
When Denmark’s Thorkil Sonne discovered that his two-year-old son Lars had autism, he refused to believe it.
“At home Lars was very much like his older brothers – he was very comfortable around family,” Sonne said. “So when we were told of his autism, we were in shock. At first we thought the diagnosis was wrong – that they’d got the wrong child.”
When Lars started school, however, Sonne realized that his son was a different child in his new environment.
“There he didn’t speak very much, didn’t make eye contact and didn’t want to play games with the other children,” Sonne said.
In the arduous months and years that followed, Sonne immersed himself in the latest research on autism.
“My perceptions of the condition totally changed,” he said. “Before, if I saw a child acting up, I would brand the parents as inadequate. Now I just wanted to give them a hug – I could empathize with how hard life might be for them.”
Remembering his own misconceptions about autism, Sonne pondered what life might be like as his son became an adult. He soon learned he was right to be concerned; the latest statistics from the UK-based National Autistic Society show that just 16% of autistic adults find paid work.
“It was harrowing to think that Lars might never have a normal working life,” Sonne said. “But I could see the challenges. Many autistic people don’t have the social skills to excel in a job interview – they would struggle to excite an employer because they don’t have the social understanding to be able to effectively communicate their strengths.”
Because they are often overlooked at school, Sonne said, many people with autism, like those around them, fail to recognize their talents. “In general, society isn’t very friendly to anyone who isn’t considered normal,” Sonne said, and that affects how people with autism see themselves.
“GIVEN THE RIGHT SUPPORT, AN AUTISTIC ADULT COULD NOT JUST HOLD DOWN A JOB, BUT ALSO BE THE BEST PERSON FOR IT.”FOUNDER AND CHAIRMAN OF THE BOARD, SPECIALISTERNE
This insight led Sonne to an epiphany. “I came to realize that maybe our society needs to change. In actual fact, given the right support, an autistic adult could not just hold down a job, but also be the best person for it.”
As a technical director at Danish communications company TDC, Sonne knew the difficulty of finding applicants with high-precision personality traits.
“We really struggled to find people with good memories, superior recognition skills, great attention to detail and high accuracy in repetitive tasks, who were honest and straightforward and who had a pride in what they were doing. These are common traits of those with autism.”
With his son as inspiration, Sonne set out in 2003 to prove to employers that invest in understanding and accommodating autistic people could deliver tremendous value. He re-mortgaged his home and founded Specialisterne – Danish for ‘the specialists.’ “The intention was to provide a comfort zone in the workplace for autistic people,” he said.
Sonne convinced a number of work candidates to give the experience a chance. “We began with a five-month assessment program to get to know them,” he said. “Not all made it through, but before long we had a good number of technical specialists on our books.”
The UK-based National Autistic Society reports that just 16% of autistic adults find paid work.
Sonne’s next challenge was to persuade employers to see autism as an advantage. “That was a tough sale in the traditional labor market,” he said. “That’s why we started off by operating as a consultancy, actually hiring the autistic candidates ourselves and then finding them placements within companies.”
Sonne’s reputation grew. Soon, some of the world’s biggest employers – including Microsoft and SAP – were contacting him.
Specialisterne has grown to meet the demand. It now has offices in 10 locations around the world and has set a goal to facilitate 1 million jobs for autistic people.
“I’m confident it can be done,” Sonne said. “We’re working with both the United Nations and the World Economic Forum, which are both great platforms for fostering awareness.”
Still, hard work lies ahead.
“My favorite analogy is about dandelions,” he said. “As children, we see dandelions as magical – we greet them with excitement and use them to make wishes. But then we grow into adults and we suddenly hate the flower that used to bring us so much joy. It’s an unwelcome weed.
“If treated well, dandelions actually are a delicious herb. But to access the value we have to see them as a flower, not a weed.”Back to top
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