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Friday, July 1, 2011

Autism and Employment

Employment of ASD adults is a major issue. At The New York Times, David Bornstein writes Specialisterne (“The Specialists”), a Danish company providing job opportunities for people with Asperger’s Syndrome and high-functioning autism.

Specialisterne was founded by Thorkil Sonne. Eleven years ago, Sonne was a successful executive at TDC when his youngest child, Lars, then 3, was diagnosed with autism. “I had the perfect career and the perfect family,” he recalled. “It was so shocking to realize that one of our family members had a lifelong disability. As parents we wanted to make the best possible future for all of our children, not just the two who were non-disabled. So we had to come up with a new plan for our family’s future.”

Only a small percentage of adults with autism are employed full-time in either the United States or Europe. This is a problem that extends to people with many other disabilities, as well. In the United States in 2010, of 14.7 million people between the ages of 16 and 64 with a disability, only 4.2 million — less than one in three — were employed.

When Sonne set up Specialisterne, he took an unusual tack: he decided that, rather than pursue business by appealing primarily to corporate responsibility, or by offering low-cost labor, he would position his consultants as superior workers and charge premium rates for their services. This approach, which is clearly limited to a subset of people with autism, seems to be working.

Sonne calls it the “dandelion philosophy.” Depending on your point of view, a dandelion is either a valuable herb — a source of iron and vitamin A, with many medicinal qualities — or a weed that invades your garden. “A weed is a beautiful plant in an unwanted place,” he says. “An herb is the same plant where it is wanted. Who decides if something is a weed or an herb? Society does.”

Since Sonne wanted companies to see people with autism as herbs, not weeds, he created a five-month program to carefully evaluate candidates’ learning and behavior profiles, build their confidence, and prepare them for success. (Danish municipalities subsidize this training program, a wise policy. In the U.S., it’s estimated that for every dollar the government spends on vocational rehabilitation for people with disabilities the Social Security Administration saves $7.)

Kevin Kwang adds at ZDNet Asia:

Strong memory, passion for details and ability to think visually are some of the traits that make high-functioning autistic workers currently an untapped talent pool for the IT industry, industry watchers point out.

Thorkil Sonne, founder of Danish computer company Specialisterne, hires only people with autism, specifically from the high-functioning end of the autistic spectrum. His experience with them has demonstrated that these special-needs people not only have a robust memory and attention for details, they take pride in what they do, have perseverance for repetitive tasks and are "very precise in their way of communication".

"High-functioning" autism typically refers to those that are able to live relatively independent lives compared to others who may demonstrate associated learning disabilities and need a lifetime of specialist support.

Rather than simply place them in jobs that might not be a good fit, Specialisterne assesses every individual's skills, identifies what would make them feel wanted in the workplace and helps them excel, Sonne told ZDNet Asia in his e-mail.

"We try to find [specific] tasks in the business arena in which the [abovementioned] characteristics are important in order to do a great job," he explained. "We believe that up to 5 percent of all tasks could be solved successfully in a superior quality by our staff."

Specialisterne has been successful in solving tasks such as software testing, quality control, data entry and logistic services, he noted, adding that his team has proven that autistic workers can do better jobs than that of "other providers" the company's customers previously experienced.