December 3, 2012

The Specialists

Thorkil Sonne began to see a business opportunity in the special skills of some autists (people with autism) like intense focus and careful execution and it began with his son.

In the New York Times, The Autism Advantage  by Gareth Cook

To his father, Lars seemed less defined by deficits than by his unusual skills. And those skills, like intense focus and careful execution, were exactly the ones that Sonne, who was the technical director at a spinoff of TDC, Denmark’s largest telecommunications company, often looked for in his own employees. Sonne did not consider himself an entrepreneurial type, but watching Lars — and hearing similar stories from parents he met volunteering with an autism organization — he slowly conceived a business plan: many companies struggle to find workers who can perform specific, often tedious tasks, like data entry or software testing; some autistic people would be exceptionally good at those tasks. So in 2003, Sonne quit his job, mortgaged the family’s home, took a two-day accounting course and started a company called Specialisterne, Danish for “the specialists,” on the theory that, given the right environment, an autistic adult could not just hold down a job but also be the best person for it.
TDC, Thorkil Sonne’s former employer, is Specialisterne’s oldest customer. When I visited its headquarters in Copenhagen in June, it was obvious why the company finds it useful to engage autistic consultants. Whenever cellphone makers introduce a new product, there are countless opportunities for glitches. The only way TDC can be sure of catching them is to load the software onto a phone and punch the phone keys over and over again, following a lengthy script of at least 200 instructions. The work is tedious, the information age equivalent of the assembly line, but also important and beyond the capacity of most people to perform well. “You will get bored, and then you will take shortcuts, and then it is worthless,” explained Johnni Jensen, a system technician at TDC.
Steen Iversen, a Specialsterne consultant in bluejeans and a bright red polo shirt, showed me how he tackles the task…But his real advantage is mental: he is exhaustive and relentless. When a script called for sending a “long text message,” Iverson keyed in every character the phone was capable of; it crashed. Another time, he found a flaw that could have disabled a phone’s emergency dialing capability, a problem all previous testers had missed. I asked Iversen how he feels at moments like that, and he gently pumped both fists in the air with a shy smile. “I feel victorious,” he say
Posted by Jill Fallon at December 3, 2012 11:16 PM | Permalink