When Thorkil Sonne and his wife learned that their son had autism, they worried that he would face an uncertain future, where he would be constantly misunderstood and never be able to lead a normal working life.
Not one to back away from a challenge, Sonne, a Danish technical director, turned adversity into opportunity. He set out on a mission to change the world so that it would be better able to accommodate individuals like his son. To accomplish this, he established a unique organization called Specialisterne (meaning "The Specialist" in Danish) in 2004. His goal was to enable 1 millions jobs for people with autism and similar conditions around the world - with 100,000 jobs planned for the United States - most of which would be in the technology and software sectors. As the proud father of an 11 year old boy with autism myself, Sonne's mission resonated strongly with me.
Specialisterne has the charter to prove that people with autism and similar challenges can be valuable and worthy contributors to the labor market. They only need to be understood and to receive the support they need to excel.
Thorkil Sonne, founder of Specialisterne, wants to enable 1 millions jobs for individuals on the autism spectrum. (Image Credit: Specialisterne)
Several forward thinking companies, such as SAP, Microsoft, HP, CAI, etc., have already recognized this unique opportunity to diversify their workforce and are collaborating with Specialisterne to include more individuals on the autism spectrum. Sonne believes that these companies represent just the "tip of the iceberg", and that this is the start of new hiring practices that will forever alter the landscape of the tech industry.
Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and autism are both general terms for a group of complex disorders of brain development. These disorders are characterized, in varying degrees, by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and possible repetitive behaviors. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the current incidence of autism is 1 in 68 children (1 in 42 boys and 1 in 189 girls). The cost of autism to the U.S. is approximately $250 Billion per year, with that number expected to rise significantly over the next decade.
It is important to note that individuals with autism often have critical skills needed in the technology sector. The skills needed to be successful at STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) jobs include visual learning skills and the ability to recognize patterns, strong attention to detail, concentration and perseverance over long periods of time, high diligence and low tolerance for mistakes. Many times these are similar traits exhibited by individuals on the autism spectrum.
Despite possessing these critical skills, individuals on the autism spectrum are in desperate need of employment. About 50% of people with autism do not have a cognitive impairment and still 85% of people of working age with autism are unemployed.
To explain the opportunity and value proposition, Sonne often makes an unusual comparison between dandelions and people with autism. To most people, the dandelion is nothing more than an annoying weed - something to be rooted out of our lawns and flowerbeds. But what a lot of people don't know is that, when cultivated, the dandelion is one of the most valuable and useful plants in nature. In many parts of the world, the dandelion is known for its nutritional, healing and medicinal properties. The value of a dandelion is very much dependent on our knowledge and perception of its value.
Most of us don't want dandelions in our lawns - they don't fit there. But if you place a dandelion plant in your kitchen garden, and cultivate it, it can turn out to be one of your most valuable plants. Dandelions are used to make beer, wine, salads, and natural medicines. Quite simply, if you choose to cultivate dandelions, you will reap their rewards. So, is a dandelion a weed or an herb? You decide. The same can be said for individuals with autism. The value of what you see depends on your level of understanding and accommodation.
One significant challenge in utilizing individuals with autism is that many employers don't always see the upside in hiring individuals who can be considered rigid and moody or a have poor communication skills. Because of this, Specialisterne focuses on developing new approaches that allow businesses to tap into the potential of this unique demographic. Sonne believes that innovative employment programs, that focus on individuals with special needs, can turn out some of the most diligent, dependable and productive employees.
Specialisterne recognized that one of their first challenges would be changing the way technology companies manage individuals as they move into an innovation-based economy. As discussed in the May 2014 MIT Sloan Management Review article, "The Dandelion Principle: Redesigning Work for the Innovation Economy", Specialisterne compares their approach to human resources and management practices versus traditional methodologies. The analysis focused on the three areas of: work design, recruitment and selection, and training / development.
Work Design: Traditional approach: Work design derives business needs from stable strategies and plans. Jobs are designed by determining the tasks a given job requires, translating these tasks into job descriptions and then placing individuals into stable organizational roles.
New Approach: Design jobs to maximize potential for particular individuals to create value. Project roles are customized so they "work" for short-term needs but can evolve as needs change.
Recruitment and Selection: Traditional Approach: Traditionally "template-based", in which companies seek, select and hire candidates who score well on checklists that are derived from job descriptions.
New Approach: Utilize a "variance-widening" approach, in which companies actively hire individuals with "differences" (abilities or qualities the company doesn't currently have). Hire unusual people; assess their skills carefully so you know what capabilities you have to work with. Keep the connection to short-term job needs loose, with the assumption that job requirements will continually evolve. Understand that candidates need not be "well-rounded", since depth in one area can often offset shortfalls in other areas.
Training and Development: Traditional Approach is usually "assignment-based", in which companies train individuals to provide specific skills needed for specific jobs. Companies offer development education based on forecasts of future needs, organizational intentions, and foreseeable value.
New Approach: Utilizes an "individual-based" approach where companies train to bring out and develop exceptional abilities, even those not related to current or foreseeable assignments. They need to build-up relevant capabilities and readiness to capture serendipitous value.
With this new approach to hiring individuals with autism, Sonne and Specialisterne have been incredibly successful. Besides working with world-class companies such as SAP, Microsoft, HP and CAI, Sonne has presented his vision before the US Congress and the United Nations and has received multiple international awards.
Despite all this, one of his proudest moments involved a team of individuals on the autism spectrum (Team Specialisterne) winning a prestigious European robotic competition organized by European Space Agency.
When individuals, who are classified with a formal disability, can win a competitive completion like this one against "typical" individuals, we as a society need to rethink what the term "disability" really means.
Sonne set out on a mission to change the world. And, in many ways, he already has.