Better, faster... and no office politics: the company with the autistic specialists

A pioneering company in Denmark is giving people with autism the chance to apply their skills to jobs from IT to product testing. The result is a huge success that's about to be rolled out across Europe. Founder Thorkil Sonne tells Michael Booth how his workforce's superhuman recall and unflinching focus could teach the rest of us a thing or two

Thorkil Sonne and his wife already had two sons when their third, Lars, arrived in 1997, so they had plenty of experience of the behavioural quirks of growing youngsters. But as Lars entered kindergarten aged two-and-a-half, the couple began to notice a more troubling change. Lars wouldn’t play with the other children, preferring to sit alone for hours on end. He began to talk less and less, until he was virtually unable to engage in any kind of dialogue at all. Something was clearly very wrong.

“We were patient,” says Sonne. “Our older boys had taught us that each child has their pace at which they climb the ladder, but Lars seemed to be stuck on a step.” The Sonnes are Danes and, fortunately, the Danish education system is good at diagnosing childhood developmental problems. Unfortunately in Lars’s case, the diagnosis was childhood autism.

“It was scary. The first phase was denial: ‘I’ve known my child for three years, you’ve only met him for two months. Don’t come and tell me he has an incurable, life-long disability!’ Then you have a bad conscience; you remember the situations where you’ve tried to use traditional means of raising kids and they didn’t work. But it didn’t take long, reading the literature, to realise it was describing Lars to the letter and, after time, we realised that Lars was still our happy, caring boy; we just had to get to learn about his world.”

Most parents, upon learning their child has a condition like this, will read up on it, learn about the treatments, therapies and consequences and start planning for the future. Sonne went somewhat further. He became involved with his local autistic society, ending up as vice-chairman of a housing facility for people with Asperger’s syndrome, a type of autism that affects social imagination, interaction and communication. Through the housing association, he got to know an 18-year-old Asperger’s sufferer who was especially gifted with computers. “He had retired on a state pension,” says Sonne. “But I thought that was so unfair as he had valuable IT skills that I could see would be useful for software- testing, support monitoring, programming and so on.”

So, in 2004, Sonne left his job of 15 years at the Danish communications company TDC, remortgaged his house, and founded a company, Specialisterne (The Specialists), to find employment for adults with autism and Asperger’s as software and systems testers. The 18-year-old Sonne had met through the housing association was his first employee.

Five years on, Specialisterne employs 60 people, has a turnover of almost £2m, and works with Microsoft (it tested Windows XP Media Center) and CSC, among other major international companies, helping them to check information systems, databases and other highly demanding, often repetitive, number-crunching tasks. Specialisterne has won numerous business and industry awards, and now has two offices in Denmark. If current plans pan out, a new branch will open in Glasgow later this year. It is a shining model of how to turn a highly skilled yet misunderstood and underexploited element of the population – around one per cent have a diagnosis of autism, but other related “invisible disabilities”, such as ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder) for instance, may account for as much as 3.5 per cent of the population – into productive and integrated members of the workforce.

I am sitting with Sonne, a quietly spoken, rather studious man in his late forties, in his well-ordered office in a hi-tech industrial park on the outskirts of Copenhagen. As we talk about his son’s condition, he plucks a piece of paper from a filing cabinet. It’s a drawing his son made following a family holiday in southern Europe. I peer at the curious pyramidal temple of squares and numbers, trying to make sense of it. “It’s Europe!” I realise after a few moments. “But what are the numbers?” Sonne produces a photocopy of the schematic contents page from his European road atlas, the atlas they used on the journey south. His son had reproduced it entirely from memory. “I’ve tried to find a single mistake, but I can’t,” Sonne says, still amazed by his son’s memory.

It’s a powerful illustration of the incredible, verging on superhuman, attention to detail, recall and unflinching ‘ focus many autistic people have, whether expressed in architectural terms (as in Stephen Wiltshire’s work – he can draw a landscape after seeing it once); linguistic (autistic author Daniel Tammet is said to have learnt Icelandic in a week); or, as is the case with many of Sonne’s employees, numerical.

“There are so many different types of phones and services to be tested,” Sonne explains. “And the work is very repetitive but requires full attention all the time. Most companies use students or outsource to India or wherever. The first couple of tests they’ll do will be fine, but by the sixth, their attention wanes and it will always be the last test that’s the most important.” Aspergerians, on the other hand, relish the repetition, their focus doesn’t waver and their numerical skills are superlative. “My staff are motivated all the time. Our fault rate was 0.5 per cent, compared with five per cent from other testers. That’s an improvement by a factor of 10, which is why we can charge market rates. This is not cheap labour and it’s not occupational therapy. We simply do a better job.”

From the start, Sonne was clear that the company would operate under market conditions, and turn a profit, which made it virtually impossible to apply for government or EU support (“They just want people who will spend their money”). But, oblivious to the economic downturn, Specialisterne continues to pick up new clients largely by word of mouth. Organisations in more than 50 countries have approached Sonne to explore the idea of starting similar projects, with Norway and Switzerland likely to follow soon.

“I knew that the autistic people I met had dreams and ambitions, personalities and motivation,” he continues. “The trick was to create an environment that supported them. If you think of a high wire, suspended between two buildings, you aren’t going to take a chance and walk across it, even with a net. But if the wire was just a metre off the ground, you might try. It’s the same with our company. We created stable ground for autistic people to walk on and I see them develop self confidence and open up to new things as a result.”

Leading UK software-testing consultant Stephen Allott of ElectroMind has been acting as an unpaid adviser to Specialisterne as the company prepares to enter the UK market where, currently, only about six per cent of people with autism are in full-time employment. He is very clear on the advantages of using them: “Simply, they are better, faster and do higher-quality work than the people we can currently get from the labour market in the UK or India,” he says. “One of their guys can read a technical document the size of a book and spot inconsistencies between something on page three and page 37, which is incredibly useful. I already have clients in the UK who are interested in what they have to offer. The only thing we need to be careful about is their working environment. I know lots of companies with noisy, chaotic, open-plan offices, where the work is like fire-fighting most of the time, and people from Specialisterne wouldn’t be able to work there. That said, the environment they need is the kind of environment we should all be working in anyway.”

Remarkably, about 70 per cent of Specialisterne’s employees are stationed in client premises. I asked Sonne how easy it is for them to fit in with other working environments. “We create virtual Specialisterne environments in our clients’ offices. Everyone who will be in contact with our consultants is briefed about the conditions they require. They have to be nice to our people, avoid stressing them. In Denmark, we use a lot of irony and sarcasm, but people with autism can’t decode that. We make sure that the clients know how important it is to be direct, to outline tasks precisely and to stick to routines, particularly if any queries arise.”

“That’s how you avoid an ‘I only fly with Qantas’ freak-out?” I blurt. “Yes,” says Sonne. “We’ve never had a ‘freak-out’. In fact, saying what you mean, meaning what you say, being nice, avoiding stress are all good things in general for companies to take on board. Many have said to us that having one of our consultants has softened the atmosphere.”

It must actually be a relief to work with colleagues for whom office politics, backbiting and bitchiness are anathema. “Yes, they are a happy and loyal group, no one ever talks badly about anyone else. It’s nice to work with people who are honest, without filters. In fact I am working on a new management technique based on our experience with working conditions that are more open and direct.”

This doesn’t mean there aren’t misunderstandings from time to time. “One of our consultants was working in an office where they introduced a free fruit basket. He went straight up and took a whole bunch of bananas back to his desk. Someone had to explain that it was expected to take perhaps one or two pieces of fruit a day, and then he got it.”

It also doesn’t mean that Specialisterne’s workforce – 90 per cent of whom are male – are somehow robotic and unfeeling. “Oh no, in fact we have two employees who met at the company and are now engaged. Many socialise at the weekends and go out in Copenhagen together.”

Sonne introduced me to one of his colleagues, Thomas Jacobsen, 27. Jacobsen’s autism wasn’t diagnosed until he was in his twenties and, meeting him, you can understand why. There is a slight social awkwardness (though probably little more than you would experience with anyone confronted by an inquisitive journalist), and nothing to alert you to the fact he has endured lengthy periods of depression in his life.

“I wouldn’t say it was a relief, but it was nice to have a name for it, for my problem,” he told me of his diagnosis. “Actually, I don’t call it a problem, I call it a twist. Before, I felt I was different because I wasn’t very social, I preferred being on my own and had lots of special interests: earthquakes, tsunamis, geography, GNPs...” GNPs? “Yes, you know, the gross national product of different countries. Since I started work here, I have learnt to cope better with social interaction,

I haven’t had a depression in two-and-a-half years. I am getting more involved in bringing new ideas to the company and am part of shaping the Specialisterne Foundation [responsible for rolling out the concept to other countries]. You do have to have the right environment for people with Asperger’s to function – there needs to be an acceptance that I am special, that I might not work regular hours, that I might have down periods – but if you have that in place, we can do any job.”

Most Specialisterne employees tend to work 20- to 25-hour weeks, but Jacobsen has brought his hours up to 35. “You really blossom here. I see it with so many Aspergerians who join the company and get proper training. I have a lot of friends at the company now, and we socialise and go out together in town. We know we all have that twist.”

I begin to wonder about all those other, less number-oriented skills that about 30 per cent of higher-achieving Asperger’s sufferers display (to the extent that I rather wince to use the word “sufferer”). With a little lateral thinking, where else might fulfilling, productive roles be found for them in society? “Well, I would be very confident to know there were autistic people running air-traffic control towers,” says Sonne. “In any company, at least one to five per cent of all tasks would fit well with the skills of people with autism. This could apply to recognition patterns in the medical industry, to accounting, to banks… Of course, some experts have identified autistic traits in people such as Mozart, Da Vinci, Newton, Einstein. If they were alive today, perhaps they would be recognised as having Asperger’s, and look at what they achieved. Unfortunately, there is such an emphasis on being a team player and social skills in the workplace that there is still this resistance. But why do we all have to be like that? There should be room for other kinds of behaviour.

“My company is a showcase, but my end game is to get one million specialist people into meaningful work by providing a management model for large corporations to become attractive to people with special needs, so they know that they will be understood and supported. You know, in the UK you spend £12bn a year on the half-a-million Brits with autism. Why not get them earning that for the economy instead?”

Sonne’s hopes for his son must have changed radically from that first diagnosis, nine years ago. “Well, he can work here, but only if he wants to. He’s approaching some interesting times now as a teenager, but he is the nicest, most gentle and caring child you could imagine. It’s a pity to think he might be bullied in society because of his way of being.”

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