When Thorkil Sonne’s son, Lars, was diagnosed with autism, he knew that it would be challenging for Lars to get a job, so he sought to do something about it. So he founded Specialisterne, a program that trains people with autism for IT jobs, in his native Denmark in 2004. Since then, he’s brought Specialisterne to Wilmington — with help from former Governor Jack Markell.
“He had been thinking ‘Well, if it works in Denmark, maybe we can make it work in Delaware because there are more and more jobs in the STEM sector and there are more and more people being diagnosed autistic,’ so I got on the phone with him and he invited me to Delaware,” he said.
Markell, Sonne said, set up meetings with local stakeholders.
“We had never seen political leadership like that before,” Sonne said. (It’s not surprising: Workforce development for people with disabilities was a priority for Markell.)
The philosophy behind Specialisterne, Danish for “The Specialists,” is that people with autism can be high-functioning and have incredible abilities and talents, but may lack skills allowing them to express themselves and interact with others, so they may be overlooked.
One in 168 children in the U.S. is diagnosed with autism, Sonne said. Currently, of the 30,131 people with disabilities that are able to work, only 16.3 percent of them are employed now, according to information from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Specialisterne’s mission is to have 100,000 jobs filled by 2020.
Sonne said after getting press exposure in Denmark, parents from all over the world asked him how their children could enroll in a program like Specialisterne, with many responses coming from the United States.
When the firm first arrived in Delaware, Markell introduced Sonne to Computer Aid Inc. (CAI), an IT services firm based in Newark, who immediately agreed to a partnership, having seen the potential for people with autism to be helpful to their business.
Specialisterne, which also has a location in New York, has partnerships with many of the biggest technological firms in the world, including SAP, IBM, JPMorgan Chase, Microsoft, as well as the State of Delaware. While Specialisterne picks the candidates, the companies follow the training program, which is a four-week course involving the use of LEGO Mindstorms robots in group work, followed by a presentation at the end. Currently, 200 jobs have been filled in the United States alone using the program, Sonne said.
In Delaware, Specialisterne has paired with a firm called The Precisionists, formed by Ernie Dianastasis, formerly a senior executive of CAI. In addition to using the training model the firm and Specialisterne developed, The Precisionists have expanded on the original Specialisterne idea and applied it to the hearing impaired and disabled veterans.
Overall, Sonne said he hopes more companies begin to look at people with autism as innovators.
“I think the companies need to pay attention to autism and similar diagnoses, because innovation comes from other non-mainstream people,” he said.
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