The company that turned 'disability' into an asset

When Thorkil Sonne was told that his three-year-old son had autism, the Danish IT specialist ran the classic gamut of responses for parents of an autistic child, from anger that a doctor could burden his happy boy with the label of a lifelong disability, to a desire to learn everything about the condition.

Few, however, go so far as to embark on a one-man mission to revolutionise society’s isolating attitude to autistics by setting up a company staffed almost entirely by sufferers that has some of the world’s biggest corporations, including Microsoft and Cisco Systems, queuing to buy its services.

Specialisterne, which has a turnover of £2m and employs more than 40 people with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in Denmark, is set to open its first international operation in Glasgow early next year as a test run for an expansion strategy which would see people with ASD working as IT consultants world wide.

The Independent understands that funding could be granted for the scheme next month, paving the way for the first company in Britain which not only predominantly employs autistics but uses the strengths of its staff – phenomenal levels of numeracy, concentration and memory – to beat off rivals in one of the world’s most competitive industries.

Inspired by the talents of his son Lars, who once stunned his father by reproducing from memory a road map of Europe, Mr Sonne set up Specialisterne (Specialists in English) six years ago, concerned at the exclusion from the workplace of people with autism and realising that the traits of “high functioning” autistics were in demand among computer software companies.

Mr Sonne, 49, a father of three, said: “I wanted Lars [to have] the same chances as his brothers. When you say autism most people think of the film, Rainman, and the common perception is that anyone with such a condition is unemployable.

“I came to realise this was very far from the truth. As long as someone with autism could feel comfortable in a workplace and have the social confidence to perform a job then they would have skills that made them more capable than others to perform certain tasks which required large degrees of precision, focus and memory recall.”

After remortgaging his home and recruiting six employees with the version of autism known as Asperger’s syndrome, Mr Sonne persuaded his previous employers, the Danish communications company TDC, to grant him a contract testing mobile phone applications and games.

When it became clear that the team could repeatedly test the software at a level which “generalists” – Mr Sonne’s term for people without ASD – could not sustain, demand for Specialisterne’s services and its “consultants” took off. The company was employed to test the Danish version of Microsoft’s Windows XP Media Centre and its client list ranges from CSC, a global IT services company, to Nordea, Scandinavia’s largest bank.

Among the techniques Specialisterne has perfected is the use of a complex form of Lego to assess the abilities of potential employees, whose condition means the social interaction of a formal interview is often impossible.

Mr Sonne said: “This is not about offering cheap labour or some kind of occupational therapy. We charge market rates, our consultants receive a market salary and that is because they simply do a better job. If you have a piece of software that needs repeated testing, a student being paid to do in Britain or India is going to get bored and lose concentration at the fifth or sixth attempt.

“Our consultants relish the challenge of that repetition and they can spot anomalies in a large amount of data that others would struggle to spot. We cannot be perfect but our error rate is 0.5 per cent compared to the five per cent for other testers.”

The company counters any concern that it is ghettoising its workers by pointing out that 70 per cent of its staff work on the premises of the client. A Specialisterne support worker ensures that the most suitable environment – a lack of sudden and loud noise, clear instructions and an average working week of around 25 hours – is provided by the host.

It is a recipe for success (the company made a profit of £100,000 last year which was ploughed back into the charitable foundation that owns Specialisterne) that Mr Sonne intends to repeat in Scotland. It is understood that software and data-inputting companies north of the border have already expressed interest in the company’s services.

The National Autistic Society (NAS), which is working with the Danish entrepreneur and other bodies in Scotland to set up the venture, said the company’s groundbreaking techniques could be a vital tool to help people with autism into work. Research to be released by the charity this week shows that 80 per cent of autism sufferers who receive incapacity benefit would like to work. Just 15 per cent of Britain’s 500,000 autistics are in full-time employment.

Raemond Charles, of the NAS, said: “There is a vast pool of untapped potential out there which we are simply missing. A branch of Specialisterne in the UK would be a very important step in opening up the work place to people with autism.”

In the meantime, Mr Sonne said that if proof were needed of the benefits of his company’s work then look no further than his staff. He said: “I have seen people transformed. One of our consultants had not worked for 24 years. Now he is testing for Cisco Systems. He finally feels he is part of society and respected. He can talk up at family gatherings. He recently got a girlfriend. Lars wants to work for us as a trainer. I see no reason why eventually those who are at lower points in the autistic spectrum should not work as well.”

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Life and Style
love + sex
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Sport
Ashley Young celebrates the winner for Manchester United against Newcastle
footballNewcastle 0 Man United 1: Last minute strike seals precious victory
Life and Style
Tikka Masala has been overtaken by Jalfrezi as the nation's most popular curry
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Seth Rogan is one of America’s most famous pot smokers
filmAmy Pascal resigned after her personal emails were leaked following a cyber-attack sparked by the actor's film The Interview
News
Benjamin Netanyahu and his cartoon bomb – the Israeli PM shows his ‘evidence’
people
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
News
i100
Life and Style
A statue of the Flemish geographer Gerard Kremer, Geradus Mercator (1512 - 1594) which was unveiled at the Geographical Congree at Anvers. He was the first person to use the word atlas to describe a book of maps.
techThe 16th century cartographer created the atlas
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: UI / UX Designer

    £25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This firm are focussed on assis...

    Recruitment Genius: General Processor

    £7 per hour: Recruitment Genius: A vacancy has arisen for a General Processor ...

    Recruitment Genius: Outbound Sales Executive - B2B

    £18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A great opportunity has arisen ...

    Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Associate

    £14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Full time and Part time positio...

    Day In a Page

    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
    The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

    Setting in motion the Internet of Things

    British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
    Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

    Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

    Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
    Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

    Cult competition The Moth goes global

    The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
    Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

    Pakistani women come out fighting

    Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
    Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

    Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

    The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
    LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

    Education: LGBT History Month

    Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
    11 best gel eyeliners

    Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

    Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

    After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot