Danish company certifies people with autism

Education and exam form developed in cooperation with Danish IT Society and development company Delta.

People with autism rarely have diplomas. Many lack the piece of paper showing that they have finalized school because exams are too much of an obstacle.

This limits their career opportunities, and many never get a job because their handicap requires different settings than most Danish workplaces offer.

Fortunately, there is an IT company called Specialisterne. This is Danish for "The Specialists."

With few exceptions, the company only employs people who are normally not seen in Danish workplaces. Three out of four employees have ASD. Most have Asperger's Syndrome, which is a mild type of autism but a neutral incurable handicap.

Last week, the first three software testers were ISEB test certified, and according to Thorkil Sonne, founder and CEO of Specialisterne, the plan is for all employees to be certified within the areas where it is possible to achieve internationally recognized proficiency diplomas and certificates.

"Introducing a certification program is a milestone for us. People with autism do not have many things on their CV. Our objective is for everyone to go through the program," he says.

Does well in school

A person with Asperger's Syndrome is as capable of going to school and learning. But new surroundings, unfamiliar situations and unknown people are generally difficult for these people to handle.

Because of this, many have difficulties taking an exam.

"Many did very well in school, but not when it came to tests. Therefore, they do not have the diploma they were supposed to have," general manager Lisbeth Zornig Andersen explains.

Therefore, exams in connection with test certifications must take place in an environment that is secure for Specialisterne's employees, and they therefore take place in the company's offices in a suburb of Copenhagen.

The untraditional education and exam form was developed in cooperation with the Danish IT Society, which is in charge of certifications, and the development company Delta, which supplies teaching resources.

All about self-understanding

It may be argued that a certificate is not significant if a person already has a job her or she likes. But this is not Specialisterne's way of thinking.

"The certifications are about the self-understanding of the company and its employees. It also relates to customers' security," says Sonne.

Many of Specialisterne's 50 employees solve tasks for external customers although it requires some preparation, both for the customer and for Specialisterne.

But Specialisterne's employees are fabulous software testers. Their error rates are extremely low, and they often solve software tasks faster than average in the industry," says Sonne.

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International autism guru

Sonne established Specialisterne in 2005 when his son was diagnosed with ASD.

He realized that labor market is not geared to employ handicapped people, and he saw is as his mission to help people with this disability maintain a satisfactory and active life.

This year, he hired a manager, Lisbeth Zornig Andersen, who handles business development while he is becoming an international guru in his field.

Thorkil spends most of his time travelling around the world to create networks and inspire other autism organizations.

For instance, he has been to Ohio this year to deliver a lecture at an autism conference. Furthermore, he is going to participate in the software test competition Starwest in the U.S. next year. In 2004, he received the Autism Award for his work.

Mortgage loan

Sonne has promised his wife that he will not take out a mortgage loan in their house when he starts doing business abroad like he did when he started his company.

But once financing is in place, he expects to set up an office in Glasgow, Scotland, in 2008 where the objective is to employ 500 software testers with ASD.

"We also have serious contacts in Sweden, Norway and Germany that want to start similar companies. So things are moving in the right direction," says Sonne.

Specialisterne expects a small profit this year. Business is going great, and the customer base is stable, not least since the company recently joined forces with the Danish consultancy Testhuset, Sonne explains.

This is an important agreement. They are in charge of managing tasks, and we supply the executing efforts. It really extends our network.

Donations without request

The extraordinary IT company is met with understanding and kindness in the Danish IT industry and abroad.

"Specialisterne is an exception in Danish business life. Integrating these people in a workplace requires extensive resources, and Specialisterne does a great job," says Anders Linde, training consultant in the Danish IT Society.

The Danish IT Society, which supervises the software certifications, has offered a favorable price on the certifications. At the moment, two business consultants from Accenture are working on a blueprint describing all processes in order for the business concept to be easier to apply in other places.

"They do it out of the goodness of their hearts. Accenture has made a donation without our request," says Lisbeth Zornig Andersen.

Companies have seen the light

In Denmark, Specialisterne has customers like KMD, Microsoft, CSC and Oracle.

"They have seen the light. They do it because they realize that they get their money's worth. We solve real tasks for them. That is the way we prefer it because that way we can prove our worth," she says.

The fact that Specialisterne has attracted interest all over the world is emphasized by a tie-up between Sonne and a research student from a Barcelona university to apply for E.U. funds for a research project on ways to integrate particularly challenged people into the labor market.