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Turning disability into a special ability

see also Specialisterne Polska

About 1% of the general population suffers from autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and most have Asperger’s syndrome. Specialisterne ('The specialists') is Danish company that employs autistic people to test software – an area in which they are particularly apt, as they have a good memory and good concentration and are good at detail.

Thorkil Sonne set up Specialisterne in 2004 because his own son suffers from autism, and he saw the need to provide such people with jobs. He worked at TDK, and proposed to retire and set up a sub-contracting firm to test software for his former employer. It agreed, and showed its support by paying for the first year’s services up front.

It now turns over €1.5m per year and has 50 staff of whom 40 are autistic, plus 20 trainees. Work includes data entry as well as software testing for customers including Cisco, Siemens and Lego, who have come to realise that autistic people make better testers than their own staff. The company has two offices in Denmark and an 2010 opened one in Scotland, aiming to create 1,000 jobs worldwide. Its Glasgow branch aimed to provide 50 jobs within three years. The Scottish operation closed after two years, but by 2022 the company was active in 13 countries across the world. The business is not socially owned. Rather it is wholly owned by Thorkil Sonne: he has not approached venture capitalists as he does not wish to dilute the mission focus.

In Denmark, the company receives a subsidy from the municipality which covers between half and two-thirds of the wage costs. There are no other incentives or access to public markets. Employees work about half-time, on a full salary. An interesting aspect of the labour relationship is that employees are on permanent contracts – but customers are welcome to ‘poach’ them! (This amounts to a sort of ‘reverse competition clause’.)

Specialisterne won the CEFEC ‘Best Large Social Firm’ award in 2006. Future growth plans include extending the beneficiary group to people with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and other disabilities.

In May 2013 German software giant SAP announced that it would employ 650 autistic people - see http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/may/22/german-it-firm-sap-seeks-autistic-workers

2011 Conference

Specialisterne held a European conference on 10-11 May 2011 in Copenhagen. See: http://www.conferencemanager.dk/specialistpeopleconference/the-event.html


Thorkil Sonne
Tel: +45 2020 0008 (mobile)


Speech at Social Enterprise World Forum, Edinburgh, 3 Sep 08