Autism as a driving force in the digital age

Jonathan Kaufman

For years people on the autism spectrum have been considered outside the norm, being socially awkward, having trouble connecting with others, or fitting in. This paradigm of autism is now being reconsidered, and a new narrative has started to appear across companies in the digital landscape. In 2012 journalist Gareth Cook wrote The Autism Advantage for the New York Times Magazine and introduced readers to Thorkil Sonne, a Danish entrepreneur who has been a true game-changer in seeing the extraordinary potential that people with autism can have by creating a platform for companies to mine an untapped talent pool for the digital economy.

Thorkil Sonne’s company Specialisterne, Danish for “the specialist” was born out of his own personal experience with his son Lars, who was diagnosed with autism. Sonne saw early on that his son possessed certain skill sets that included deep concentration and focus, and a need for meticulous execution. At the time Sonne had been working as a technical director of a telecommunications company and these were critical skills that he had looked for in his own employees. After witnessing his son’s skill set and hearing from other parents who had similar stories, he was compelled to explore this further, and in 2004 a company was born. Specialisterne philosophy was that an adult on the autism spectrum could not just hold down a job, but potentially could be the best person for it. Sonne goes further and states that he believes that the theory is based on what he calls his “dandelion model." Sonne says that “when dandelions pop up in a lawn, we call them weeds, but the sprig greens can also make a tasty salad. A similar thing can be said of autistic people-that apparent weaknesses (bluntness’s and obsessiveness, say) can also be marketable strengths (directness, attention to detail).” Sonne believes that it is time for everyone to decide whether one sees a weed or an herb? Even with such a flowery metaphor, Sonne is under no illusion that Specialisterne is a for-profit enterprise. He realized that the most critical factor was that in order to change the mindsets of corporate leaders people with autism must prove their value in the open marketplace. As a consultancy Specialistrene hires people on the autism spectrum and harnesses their talents and special characteristics to engage in more tedious tasks for organizations such as software testing, quality control, programming, and data entry among other responsibilities for both the public and private sectors. Since 2004 Thorkil Sonne’s vision has grown, and Specialistrene is now in over 13 countries around the globe.

This new vision has not gone unnoticed by companies in Silicon Valley and elsewhere. In October of 2018 six companies including Microsoft, EY, Ford Motor Company, SAP, DXC Technology, and JPMorgan Chase founded the Autism at Work Roundtable. These companies whether directly, or indirectly, were early adopters of Sonne’s model and understood the need to share best practices and assist other organizations to see the return of investment of hiring employees on the autism spectrum. By establishing a mechanism to leverage these opportunities even further, several companies in the tech industry are making calculated efforts to create a culture of inclusion by developing programs that not only provide the necessary support for people with autism but foster an environment where the vision of leveraging autistic workers can be fully realized. One of the first companies to embrace autistic talent was SAP, the multinational enterprise company that makes software to manage business operations and customer relations. Jose Velasco, vice president of product management and head of the Autism at Work program in the U.S., stated that “in 2013, there was a significant software-testing need in India, so we hired four people there as a pilot. Now we’re hiring people on the spectrum in 10 countries.”

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