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Thursday, November 29, 2012

A Company That Focuses on Hiring ASD People

Previous posts have looked at the employment of ASD adults, and a couple have discussed the Danish company Specialisterne.  The New York Times reports on the company's founder, Thorkil Sonne, an autism dad who noticed that his son Lars had impressive powers of concentration.
Sonne did not consider himself an entrepreneurial type, but watching Lars — and hearing similar stories from parents he met volunteering with an autism organization — he slowly conceived a business plan: many companies struggle to find workers who can perform specific, often tedious tasks, like data entry or software testing; some autistic people would be exceptionally good at those tasks. So in 2003, Sonne quit his job, mortgaged the family’s home, took a two-day accounting course and started a company called Specialisterne, Danish for “the specialists,” on the theory that, given the right environment, an autistic adult could not just hold down a job but also be the best person for it.
For nearly a decade, the company has been modest in size — it employs 35 high-functioning autistic workers who are hired out as consultants, as they are called, to 19 companies in Denmark — but it has grand ambitions. In Europe, Sonne is a minor celebrity who has met with Danish and Belgian royalty, and at the World Economic Forum meeting in Tianjin in September, he was named one of 26 winners of a global social entrepreneurship award. Specialisterne has inspired start-ups and has five of its own, around the world. In the next few months, Sonne plans to move with his family to the United States, where the number of autistic adults — roughly 50,000 turn 18 every year — as well as a large technology sector suggests a good market for expansion.
 As Sonne tries to build up his business in the United States, though, he faces practical challenges. For one thing, in Denmark, the government helps cover some of the additional expense of managing autistic workers, and it pays Specialisterne so it can give its employees full-time salaries even though they only work part time. Specialisterne pays its consultants in Denmark between $22 and $39 an hour, a rate negotiated with unions, and in Delaware it plans to start with salaries between $20 and $30 an hour. And while two Delaware charitable foundations have pledged $800,000 to Specialisterne, Sonne estimates that it will take $1.36 million, and three years, for the business to become self-sustaining.
The title is "The Autism Advantage," which hints at the savant stereotype.  But writers do not choose the titles of newspaper articles, and the piece itself is pretty careful  on this point:
Another challenge involves expectations. A new stereotype of autistic people as brainiacs, endowed with quirky superminds, is just as misguided as the old assumption that autistic people are mentally disabled, Sonne says. Autistic people, like everyone else, have diverse abilities and interests, and Specialisterne can’t employ all of them. Most people Specialisterne evaluates in Denmark don’t have the right qualities to be a consultant — they are too troubled, too reluctant to work in an office or simply lack the particular skills Specialisterne requires. The company hires only about one in six of the men and women it assesses.