Harnessing the special skills of the 'outliers'


When his son was diagnosed with autism, Thorkil Sonne was given a new insight into the unique talents of those with the disorder – so he set up a consultancy firm with the aim to create one million jobs for “specialist people”, writes JOANNE HUNT

MOST JOBS call for people skills and teamwork, but for some roles they don’t matter a jot. For solo tasks or those that require attention to detail, managers know the social butterfly just won’t last. That’s why they’re hiring the Specialists.

Prized for their structured minds, good memories, pattern-recognition skills and perseverance, for software testing, quality control and data entry, the Specialists consultants outshine. Their natural advantage, explains company founder Thorkil Sonne, is autism.

A former technical director with Danish telecoms firm TDC, when Sonne’s son Lars was diagnosed with autism at the age of three, he struggled to understand why so few people with the condition had a job.

“From my technical background, I knew that the skills I saw in the young people I met and in Lars were valuable,” he says. “It was just so strange that these people were being rejected.”

Sonne decided maybe it wasn’t people like Lars that were the problem, but society’s perception of them.

“I thought, ‘why not set up a company that’s based on offering the unique skills of people on the autistic spectrum?’”

Re-mortgaging his house, he handed in his resignation to TDC to pursue the idea. Intrigued by the premise, they became the first customer of Sonnes company Specialisterne or, the Specialists.

Eight years later, consultants at the for-profit company, all adults on the autistic spectrum, out-perform the market. Clients include Microsoft, Cisco, Nokia and Deloitte.

“We have some really ingenious types who can do things no one else can figure out how to do and then we have lots of people who excel in testing, quality control and data entry,” says Sonne. “At least five per cent of all tasks would suit perfectly our kind of people.”

Sonne, who was in Dublin recently for the Change Nation conference on social innovation, says 70 to 80 per cent of all tasks are carried out at a customer’s site where the main challenge is dispelling perceptions of autism

“Everyone has seen the Rain Man film,” he jokes. “Before we come, many have an idea of how difficult it will be to work with these people, but they soon find out that it is a very positive experience.”

He says while clients are given a briefing in advance, the rules for managing staff with autism should be familiar to good managers anyway.

“We make sure the task is well described and well planned and the work settings are comfortable for the employee,” he says.

“Don’t use irony, dont use sarcasm and if you want them to do certain things, tell them. Ask them. Don’t expect them to read non-verbal signals.”

He says the biggest difference is his company’s request not to stress its consultants.

“If you want things done faster, get in contact with our business manager, and we’ll add resources or make sure that what you want will be implemented – but it has to be through us, because they cannot handle stress.”

When it comes to interacting with client-side staff, he says it’s a learning curve for both sides.

“Don’t be surprised if you ask them to join you for lunch and they say ‘no thanks’. It’s not because they don’t like you, it’s because they are not comfortable yet – maybe in a couple of weeks or months, they’ll join you. So it’s very small things and these things can be dealt with.”

The effects of Specialisterne have been positive for everyone he says.

“Many clients are surprised and have their eyes opened to the waste of resources we have in society,” he says.

“A lot of the tasks we do can often be difficult to motivate your own staff to do . . . many of them are hired for their flexibility and team ability and they don’t like getting into the detail of things. So actually, we bring a joy of work in situations where it is often missing.”

It’s enriching for the colleagues working side by side with those with autism too.

“Normally, people with disabilities are kind of hidden away, but to work together can really be one of the things that people talk about when they go home, instead of how many millions the company has earned today.”

For the Specialisterne, the boon is greater still.

“You can just imagine what it means to have a job,” says Sonne. “What it means to family members that now they have a successful member of the family instead of the one they always worry about.

“When you have your own money, you can buy a car and move away from your parents, you can go on vacation and all that stuff like anyone else. It’s an enormous boost of self-esteem.”

Sonne says hiring people on the autistic spectrum also opens up corporations to new ways of thinking. The Harvard Business School agrees.

“We are a case study at Harvard not because we do software testing but because we manage people that they call ‘the outliers’, says Sonne. “Those on the edges of normality.”

“According to Harvard, the really serious innovation comes not from the middle of the mainstream but from the outliers. I think what we contribute is the opportunity for innovation, he says.

With one per cent of the population on the autistic spectrum and 80 to 90 per cent of those unemployed, Sonne reasons: “We give access to an untapped pool of resources who are really good at thinking outside the box.”

Now running in Scotland, Iceland, Switzerland and Norway and seeking funding to set up in Ireland this year, Sonne’s aim is to create one million jobs for “the specialist people”.

The pitch to hiring managers in Ireland is not that this is a “nice to do” but that’s good for business.

“I hear so often that Ireland has a lack of specialists. We can open up a pool of specialists to you. If you want to work with us on mapping your needs, on trying out our skill sets, then contact us.

“I think this is the offer of the week.”