Channelling autism

A Danish tech firm harnesses the power of the autistic brain

Channelling autismFor the first two years of his life, Lars Sonne appeared to develop normally, a happy boy, much like his older brothers. But at the age of two, roughly 10 years ago, Lars started to retreat into himself. “At kindergarten, he wouldn’t play with others,” says his father Thorkil Sonne, a Danish software executive, speaking from his office in Copenhagen. “He would only be on his own, sit on a swing for hours.” For several months, psychologists observed the boy closely, and ultimately delivered a devastating diagnosis. “We were told that our son has a lifelong disability called childhood autism,” says Sonne. “It was scary to realize how many doors would be closed to him.”

As time progressed, Sonne noted something remarkable about Lars. He had few friends—he was far too easy to bully—but he had intense, deeply cerebral interests, like astronomy, railroad systems and math. “When he starts focusing on something, he is so clever,” he says. “He can learn so much; it’s quite extraordinary.” Once, when Lars was seven, Sonne found him creating an elaborate doodle, made up of dozens of stacked boxes, numbers and acronyms. Only later, when Sonne happened to crack open an atlas on his bookshelf, did he realize that what his son had drawn was a replica, from memory, of an intricate road map of western Europe, reproduced without a single error.

By then, the extraordinary capabilities of the autistic brain had become familiar ground to Sonne. As chairman of his local autism society chapter, he spoke to dozens of parents of high-functioning kids with astonishing cognitive abilities. “Their skills were particularly strong with computers,” he says, “and they were very familiar with the Internet.” But they also faced many of the same social obstacles as Lars—difficulty interacting, an inability to read tone or body language, an intolerance of change, and an extreme sensitivity to distractions—all things that, parents feared, would render their children virtually unemployable in a conventional work setting. Everywhere, Sonne found, discourse about autism was dominated by talk of weaknesses. But when he looked at gifted young people like his son, he saw enormous wasted enthusiasm and untapped potential.

In 2004, Sonne refinanced his home and founded Specialisterne—Danish for “The Specialists”—the first company in the world whose business model caters to employees with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs). Its employees, 75 per cent of whom have some form of autism, are specialists in software testing—challenging, repetitive tasks that demand enormous accuracy and intense focus. Because of his first-hand knowledge of the software business, Sonne believed that if he could convince major companies to outsource the testing of their products to his consultants, he could save them millions in defect prevention, free up their creative employees from “the boring work,” create a profitable business, and offer meaningful work to employees with special challenges.

But first he had to find a way to make clients understand the extraordinary resources his consultants had to offer. Torben Sorensen, 30, is a typical Specialisterne employee. He has a mild form of autism called Asperger’s syndrome. “I have an ability to see when something deviates,” he told the Danish newspaper Urban DK in 2005. “It kind of leaps to the eye. It’s an ability many people don’t seem to have, but to me it’s natural.” Sorensen came to Specialisterne after his teaching career didn’t pan out. He excelled at the theoretical aspects of education, he said, but he could not seem to connect with the children. “I like working here,” he said. “I don’t have to try to be anything other than myself. At times I can become obsessed with my work and that’s fine. In another company I might be expected to make small talk and be flexible. Here I can just concentrate on my work without being considered anti-social.”

Five years in, the company now employs 60 consultants who have proven so skilled at their work they have more commissions than they can handle from multinational clients including Microsoft, CSC, Oracle and LEGO. The company’s annual revenue has increased by 50 per cent year over year; by 2007, it was pulling in over $2.3 million, and last year, the company turned a modest profit. Sonne’s long-term goal is to employ 1,000-plus employees with ASDs worldwide. “We are in contact with people or organizations in 53 countries who want Specialisterne to be established in their country,” he says. This year, the company will expand into Norway, Switzerland and Britain and, before too long, he plans to break into the U.S. and Canadian markets.

Specialisterne stands as a beacon of hope in the autism community. In recent years, ASD diagnoses have exploded in North America for reasons that remain mysterious but are thought to be the result of some combination of improved diagnostics, environmental factors and genetics. In Canada, one in 165 children is now born with autism—with symptoms that range from mild to requiring 24-7 care. “And now what’s happening,” says Sandra McKay, chair of the Autism Society Canada, “is that we’ve got a lot of adolescents and young adults who were diagnosed 10, 15 years ago who are going to be entering the workforce, and it’s like, what do we do now?”

Currently, only six per cent of adults with autism find full-time work—even though half of all individuals with ASDs are high-functioning, meaning they don’t have an intellectual disability. For this group, their greatest obstacles pertain to social expectations. The world is simply not configured to accommodate their version of “normal” behaviour.

To shed light on why so many bright people are languishing—and whether the barriers they face are real or socially constructed—David Hagner of the University of New Hampshire Institute on Disability conducted a study of successfully employed autistic adults to determine what they had in common. Overall, he said, “the comments I got from employers were almost as superlative as you can hear about a worker.”

The challenges employers reported to him were pretty consistent: for one, autistic employees generally don’t fare well in job interviews (eye contact and small talk are a challenge). They can be hypersensitive to noise, light or scent, and are often uncomfortable working in open-concept spaces. Most commonly, they work best with very specific instructions, a great deal of consistency, and advance notice of any changes to their routine. “Once employers saw these things, they realized it was a cost of doing business,” says Hagner. “But supervisors told me it’s not a greater cost than someone else. It’s just different.”

In fact, ironically, Hagner’s research found that the quirks that make social situations challenging for people with autism are often the very things that make them great employees. For instance, a person with autism, he says, is not going to get caught up in office gossip or politics. They’re not going to cut corners, or lie, or steal. Universally, these employees were said to be loyal, punctual and thorough. “I think the thing the supervisors really liked most was their work ethic,” says Hagner. “If they’re told, ‘Your break is 10 minutes,’ they would take 10 minutes. Not nine or 11. Just 10.”

The genius of Specialisterne is that it was set up to take so-called “odd” behaviour and make it the norm. “They are the ‘normals,’ ” says Sonne. “Many have never had a job before. They might not have an education, but we don’t care.” Instead of a traditional interview, Specialisterne engages prospective consultants in a five-month training process to determine where they excel. “We see their personality, their vocational, personal and social experience, and their learning profile,” says Sonne, “and we try out different set-ups and work hours and find out what kind of stress level would go well with them.” Once they’re hired, consultants typically work 25 to 30 hours per week.

Seventy per cent of their work is performed on-site at clients’ facilities. To ease the relationship, clients are given a short introduction to autism and to the firm’s culture. Specialisterne also offers a full-time, on-call response staff who are trained to deal with any situation that may arise. Disruptions, although infrequent, do happen. In one instance, a Specialisterne consultant, disturbed by an inexplicable irregularity in his work, would get up and pace the hallway between his desk and the men’s room every time it happened. The client called the support staff who stepped in to counsel the consultant. In another case, a consultant described as a brilliant mathematician would occasionally be hit with bouts of depression. On those days, he would simply get up and leave. A support person would be called upon to find a substitute.

Overwhelmingly, however, clients have expressed great satisfaction with the work Specialisterne does. Microsoft Denmark, for example, hired its consultants to test its Windows XP Media Center. “The assignment could have been solved by one of our own employees,” said Nis Bank Lorentzen, business group lead of Microsoft Denmark, “but there was a great risk that he or she would lose the ability to concentrate after repeating the assignment a couple of times. With Specialisterne, the risk is non-existent. Their ability to concentrate remains intact, even after solving the same task many times over. Furthermore, they have a fantastic ability to locate errors and aberrations.”

In December, confident that the company was on solid footing and ready to take it to the next level, Sonne sold the company to the Specialisterne People Foundation, which he created, for one Danish krone. “The role of Specialisterne is still to earn money,” he says, “but the money will not go to external sources, but to the foundation, and the foundation will use the money for creating jobs and developing new knowledge, new services.” His hope is that, by the time Lars turns 18, the world will be a little more hospitable to people like him. “My goal is to showcase or demonstrate what happens if we embrace people with autism instead of keep on thinking they are problems to our society,” he says. “Otherwise, they have no chances.”