|Illustration by Quickhoney|
Name: Thorkil Sonne
Job: CEO and Founder of Specialisterne
Why he’s brave: He launched a software-testing company and staffed it with employees who have autism spectrum disorder.
Quote: “I think normality is whatever the majority decides it will be, and in our company people with autism are the norm.”
After his son Lars was diagnosed with autism in the late 1990s, Sonne had an epiphany. Autistics tend to have poor social skills and difficulty responding to stress or changes, which makes finding work a challenge (one study suggests that only 6 percent of autistic adults have full-time employment). But Sonne realized that they also tend to be methodical, possess excellent memories, and show great attention to detail and tolerance for repetition—in other words, they might make excellent software testers. With this in mind, Sonne launched Specialisterne, in Copenhagen, in 2004. Thirty-seven of its 51 employees have autism (though most have a mild form called Asperger’s syndrome). The firm now pulls in $2 million a year in revenue and serves clients like Microsoft and CSC. Sonne refuses to run the company like a charity: he competes in the open market and aims to make a profit. This makes government support unlikely, but it may lead to a sustainable new model for companies with disabled employees: Harvard Business School now uses Specialisterne as a case study in social-enterprise business. People on the autistic spectrum are not superhuman memory machines; but neither are they incapable of work. Sonne treats them as employees with strengths and weaknesses that smart employers should respect—and capitalize on.