Specialisterne: The business is changing employers' perception on autism.

How This Danish Company Helps People With Autism Get Jobs in Tech

How This Danish Company Helps People With Autism Get Jobs in Tech

Moneybox
A blog about business and economics.
May 21 2015 2:42 PM

How a Danish Company Is Helping People With Autism Get Jobs in IT and Tech

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Only about 32.5 percent of young aduilts with autism are paid employees, according to the National Longitudinal Transition Study 2.

Photo by Ian Gavan/Getty Images for O2

This post originally appeared in Inc.

William Hughes is a marketing intern at Towers Watson. Hughes holds a master’s degree in political science from Stony Brook, which he received in 2013, as well as a bachelor's degree from Hunter College. He also has autism.  

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"We're highly talented individuals. We may not see things the same way as a neurotypical person, but we will get to where we're going," the 48-year-old Hughes said.

The fact that Hughes is employed—let alone by the largest human resources consulting firm in the world—makes him an exception. Typically, it's very difficult for people with disabilities to find work: Just 68 percent between the ages of 16 and 64 have jobs, according to research from the American Community Survey. And only 32.5 percent of young adults with autism work for pay, according to the National Longitudinal Transition Study 2.

Hughes is bucking the trend in part thanks to the training he received from Specialisterne, a company that hires high-functioning autistic employees and prepares them for employment in the IT and technology sector. In many cases, people with autism may actually have more to offer companies than the average worker, especially in the world of tech.

Thorkil Sonne, who founded Specialisterne in 2004, wants to change the professional fate of people with autism—and he has a personal stake in the cause: His own son Lars was diagnosed with autism 15 years ago. The Danish company—which literally translates as "the specialists"—is off to a promising start and has since expanded to nine countries worldwide. The United States is his next target because it represents a huge market with about 50,000 people with autism turning 18 each year, according to the New York Times. But changing the way companies think of autistic employees is going to be a marathon, not a sprint.

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Sonne has learned that Specialisterne has a difficult business model to uphold abroad, especially without the same level of government support that it receives in Denmark: He told the Times that it would take roughly $1.36 million and three years for the U.S. branch to fully sustain itself.

Training and finding jobs for people on the autism spectrum still goes against so many social norms in the workplace.  

"Employers aren't hiring people with autism because they're locked into a social paradigm, where everyone is looking for happy, mainstream employees who are good team players and good at promoting themselves," Sonne said"There's a total divide between talent and vacant jobs in the high tech sector. Our mission is to remove that divide."  

Specialisterne has already seen some success: Software juggernaut Microsoft announced in April that it will partner with the organization in an effort to promote workforce diversity at its Redmond, Washington, headquarters. Specialisterne has also worked with the German database company SAP, with Hewlett-Packard in Australia, and with a number of American technology companies. Sonne estimates that Specialisterne has generated 500 jobs for people with autism so far.

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Employees with autism can often bring exceptional skills to the table, such as pattern recognition, enhanced memory, and the ability to consistently engage in repetitive tasks, according to Sonne. And in 2009, scientists researching autism at King's College in London found that most individuals diagnosed with the disease possess "some form of outstanding ability," according to the Times. But people with autism tend to lack the social aptitude that employers, like those in Silicon Valley, tend to screen for.

That's why traditional hiring practices like phone interviews may actually be discriminatory, according to Timothy Weiler, the director for talent and rewards at HR consulting firm Towers Watson. Weiler helped to get the Specialisterne program up and running at his company.

"Employers need to alter the way they're screening candidates and be careful about expecting the type of social interaction that most of us were screened on, which is direct eye contact, firm handshake, a smiley sunny disposition. ... Some of those things really have no correlation to success in the workplace," Weiler said.

Of course, everyone with autism is different. "The autism spectrum is a very wide, broad net, and so not everyone is going to have the same issues," Hughes said.

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Sonne, for his part, urges hiring managers to keep an open mind with those employees.

"Say what you mean and mean what you say. Don't use irony or sarcasm," he said. People with autism likely won't be pick up on those cues, he added.

Even so, Sonne's organization wants to help autistic workers cultivate their social skills as much as possible. The program uses a "show versus tell" methodology in lieu of a sit-down interview. After an introductory workshop, where individuals are asked to complete tasks such as building and programming their own robots, Specialisterne chooses a handful of applicants to go through with the assessment training course. The company evaluates applicants on their teamwork, motivation, and professional skills. When Specialisterne worked with SAP, this was a four-week session. Hughes' program lasted from February through September: After the training, most candidates worked as seasonal employees at the company's White Plains, New York, location.

Hughes said these lessons were valuable to him.

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"It helped me get insight into what I was doing wrong, and it's been helpful to get me back into the workforce," he said.

Of Hughes' training group, he was the only one to get a job at Towers Watson. At least one of his colleagues went back to school after the training, although many stayed on as employees with Specialisterne in White Plains.  

It's worth noting all of the individuals in Hughes' group already had college degrees, although Sonne said that this isn't a requirement for someone who wants to enter the program.

"It's important for them to know how teamwork works, because many have been told that they cannot do it," Sonne said. "Our experience is that if we can explain the expectations, they will be able to fit in."

Hughes, for his part, agrees: "We have different backgrounds but we can work together very well. Ultimately, as the group succeeded, each one of us felt like we succeeded. That's the important thing for people to realize."

Expectation management is one of the organization's greatest challenges, given that it's highly selective: It hires only about one in six of the people it evaluates, the Times reported. While the company does its best to help the applicants get jobs, not everyone is successful in the end, and Sonne admits that recovering from that rejection can be especially difficult for their candidates. 

Still, Specialisterne aims for more in the future: Its ultimate goal is to have 1 million people with autism employed.