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The Autism Advantage

by on December 16, 2012

The Autism Advantage

Thorkil Sonne and his son Lars, who has autism, at home in Ringsted, Denmark.
http://mobile.nytimes.com/2012/12/02/magazine/the-autism-advantage.xml

By GARETH COOK

Published: December 02, 2012

When Thorkil Sonne and his wife, Annette, learned that their
3-year-old son, Lars, had autism, they did what any parent who has
faith in reason and research would do: They started reading. At first
they were relieved that so much was written on the topic. “Then came
sadness,” Annette says. Lars would have difficulty navigating the
social world, they learned, and might never be completely independent.
The bleak accounts of autistic adults who had to rely on their parents
made them fear the future.

What they read, however, didn’t square with the Lars they came home to
every day. He was a happy, curious boy, and as he grew, he amazed them
with his quirky and astonishing abilities. If his parents threw out a
date – Dec. 20, 1997, say – he could name, almost instantly, the day
of the week (Saturday). And, far more usefully for his family, who
live near Copenhagen, Lars knew the train schedules of all of
Denmark’s major routes.

One day when Lars was 7, Thorkil Sonne was puttering around the house
doing weekend chores while Lars sat on a wooden chair, hunched for
hours over a sheet of paper, pencil in hand, sketching chubby
rectangles and filling them with numerals in what seemed to represent
a rough outline of Europe. The family had recently gone on a long car
trip from Scotland to Germany, and Lars passed the time in the back
seat studying a road atlas. Sonne walked over to a low shelf in the
living room, pulled out the atlas and opened it up. The table of
contents was presented as a map of the continent, with page numbers
listed in boxes over the various countries (the fjords of Norway,
Pages 34-35; Ireland, Pages 76-77). Thorkil returned to Lars’s side.
He slid a finger along the atlas, moving from box to box, comparing
the source with his son’s copy. Every number matched. Lars had
reproduced the entire spread, from memory, without an error. “I was
stunned, absolutely,” Sonne told me.

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.

For nearly a decade, the company has been modest in size – it employs
35 high-functioning autistic workers who are hired out as consultants,
as they are called, to 19 companies in Denmark – but it has grand
ambitions. In Europe, Sonne is a minor celebrity who has met with
Danish and Belgian royalty, and at the World Economic Forum meeting in
Tianjin in September, he was named one of 26 winners of a global
social entrepreneurship award. Specialisterne has inspired start-ups
and has five of its own, around the world. In the next few months,
Sonne plans to move with his family to the United States, where the
number of autistic adults – roughly 50,000 turn 18 every year – as
well as a large technology sector suggests a good market for
expansion.

“He has made me think about this differently, that these individuals
can be a part of our business and our plans,” says Ernie Dianastasis,
a managing director of CAI, an information-technology company that has
agreed to work with Specialisterne to find jobs for autistic software
testers in the United States.

For previously unemployable people – one recent study found that more
than half of Americans with an autism diagnosis do not attend college
or find jobs within two years of graduating from high school – Sonne’s
idea holds out the possibility of self-sufficiency. He has received
countless letters of thanks and encouragement from the families of
autistic people. One woman in Hawaii wrote Sonne asking if she could
move her family to Denmark so that her unemployed autistic son could
join the Specialisterne team.

I first met Sonne, who is 52, in Delaware at a small conference he
organized for parents and government officials who want to help him
set up American operations over the coming year. He stood before them,
sipping a cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, speaking enthusiastically of
his “dandelion model”: when dandelions pop up in a lawn, we call them
weeds, he said, but the spring greens can also make a tasty salad. A
similar thing can be said of autistic people – that apparent
weaknesses (bluntness and obsessiveness, say) can also be marketable
strengths (directness, attention to detail). “Every one of us has the
power to decide,” he said to the audience, “do we see a weed, or do we
see an herb?”

It’s an appealing metaphor, though perhaps a tougher sell in the
United States, where you rarely see dandelion salad. It is also, of
course, a little too simple. Over eight years of evaluating autistic
adults, Sonne has discovered that only a small minority have the
abilities Specialisterne is looking for and are able to navigate the
unpredictable world of work well enough to keep a job. “We want to be
a role model to inspire,” Sonne told me later, “but we can only hire
the ones that we believe can fill a valuable role in a consultancy
like ours.” In other words, he’s not running a charity. It is Sonne’s
ultimate goal to change how “neurotypicals” see people with autism,
and the best way to do that, he has decided, is to prove their value
in the marketplace.

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. Iversen, who is 52
and has worked at TDC for four years, laid out several phones on a
desk that also held his computer, two bananas, an apple and lines of
lime green Post-it notes. He picked up a phone in one hand and
demonstrated his technique, his thumb landing on the buttons in quick
succession. 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 said.

Over the years, Jensen has developed strategies for interacting with
Iversen and the two other consultants he oversees. Trying to rush them
inevitably backfires, he told me. “Sometimes I have to bite my
tongue.” Jensen feels protective of the consultants and tries to
shield them from the usual stresses of office work, but he is emphatic
that the arrangement has endured not because he pities them but
because their work is excellent. When Iversen finds a bug, he can
recall similar ones from years past, saving Jensen the time and
frustration of researching the problem’s history. And, Jensen says,
the consultants are far more devoted to accuracy than neurotypical
workers. Iversen has punched mobile-phone keys day after day, and not
once has he cut a corner or even made a careless mistake.

Christian Andersen, another Specialisterne consultant, works at
Lundbeck, a large pharmaceutical company. He compares records of
patients who have experienced reactions to Lundbeck’s drugs, making
sure the paper records match the digital ones. Errors can creep in
when the reports are entered into the company’s database, and tiny
mistakes could mean that potential health hazards would go undetected.
So Andersen searches for anomalies, computer entry against written
report, over and over, hour after hour, day after day.

Before Andersen arrived, his boss, Janne Kampmann, had a hard time
finding employees who could do the job well. Most people’s minds
wander as they go back and forth between documents, their eyes
skimming the typos lurking there. Andersen, however, worked without
interruption the morning I visited, attentive and silent until he
lifted his head and, pointing to a sheet of paper, said to Kampmann,
“Why do we have a 57 instead of 30 milligrams?” Kampmann told me
Andersen is one of the best quality-control people she’s ever seen.

For years, scientists underestimated the intelligence of autistic
people, an error now being rectified. A team of Canadian scientists
published a paper in 2007 showing that measures of intelligence vary
wildly, depending on what test is used. When the researchers used the
Wechsler scale, the historical standard in autism research, a third of
children tested fell in the range of intellectual disability, and none
had high intelligence, consistent with conventional wisdom. Yet on the
Raven’s Progressive Matrices, another respected I.Q. test, which does
not rely on language ability, a majority of the same children scored
at or above the middle range – and a third exhibited high
intelligence. Other scientists have demonstrated that the autistic
mind is superior at noticing details, distinguishing among sounds and
mentally rotating complex three-dimensional structures. In 2009,
scientists at King’s College London concluded that about a third of
autistic males have “some form of outstanding ability.”

This emerging understanding of autism may change attitudes toward
autistic workers. But intelligence, even superior intelligence, isn’t
enough to get or keep a job. Modern office culture – with its
unwritten rules of behavior, its fluid and socially demanding work
spaces – can be hostile territory for autistic people, who do better
in predictable environments and who tend to be clumsy at shaping their
priorities around other people’s requirements.

Most Specialisterne consultants work in the offices of the companies
that use their services, but some need to operate out of
Specialisterne’s more forgiving work space. Even those capable of
working on site sometimes get into trouble. In one case, the company
was contacted by a medical-technology company, which needed help
testing new prescription-tracking software. This seemed a marvelous
bit of luck, says Rune Oblom, Specialisterne’s business manager,
because there was a consultant on staff interested in illnesses.
Everything was going fine until a medical team arrived to try out the
software, and the consultant spent the entire morning recounting to
them, in detail, the medical treatments that he, his mother and the
rest of his family received over the years. Another consultant was
assigned to finish the software-testing job. “I told him that the
doctors were not very happy and felt he was a disturbing factor,”
Oblom says. “But he couldn’t see it.”

The consultant has since been moved to another company, where he has
done well at his professional tasks but still misses social cues. In
Denmark, there is a tradition of bringing cake to the office on
Fridays, and Oblom recently learned from the on-site supervisor that
the consultant happily eats cake but has never volunteered to bring
one himself. Then there was the time he tasted a co-worker’s cake and
pronounced it terrible. Oblom told me that he plans to tell the
consultant that he has to bring in cake now and then – and he will do
it, Oblom predicts, without understanding the reason – but he’s not
going to encourage the consultant to be more polite. The concept of
socially mandated dishonesty would mystify him, Oblom said, so the
other employees will just have to deal with it.

Specialisterne tries to anticipate, or at least mitigate, conflicts by
assigning every consultant to a neurotypical coach. The coach checks
in with the consultants regularly, monitoring their emotional
well-being and helping them navigate the social landscape of the
office. Henrik Thomsen, a jolly man who runs Specialisterne in Denmark
while Sonne works on international expansion, told me about one
consultant who is fascinated by train schedules. Severe storms can
disrupt the trains around Copenhagen, and if the consultant’s train
was delayed, he would start the day with a tour of his colleagues at
the Specialisterne office, telling each how the commute played out,
station by station. Sometimes another consultant would get annoyed and
tell him to “cut the crap,” Thomsen says, “and then the real fun would
begin.” So now Thomsen listens to the radio as he drives in, taking
mental note of potential delays. When Thomsen arrives at work, he
invites the consultant into his office first thing, listens to the
day’s commuting story and then asks him to please get to work.

Specialisterne’s headquarters occupy part of a three-story complex in
a Copenhagen suburb. Sonne showed me around the building: in addition
to the consulting business, there is a nonprofit focused on spreading
the Specialisterne business model, and a small school for people on
the autism spectrum in their late teens and early 20s. In the largest
room, boxes of Legos are stacked against one wall, and a pair of long,
waist-high tables for Lego activities occupy the center, under a
string of halogen lights.

When Sonne started the company, one of his biggest challenges was
determining who would be able to thrive as a tech consultant in an
office environment. A traditional interview was clearly not going to
do the trick, and he had to think of other ways to identify marketable
strengths in people who have difficulty communicating.

Lars had always enjoyed Legos, and talking to other parents, Sonne
heard stories about how the toy bricks brought out remarkable, hidden
abilities. “For many parents,” Sonne told me, “this was one of the few
moments when they could be proud of their children.” So he decided to
ask potential employees to follow the assembly directions included in
the Lego Mindstorms kits and watch them build the robots.

This turned out to be so revealing that assessing job skills in the
autistic population has itself become part of Specialist­erne’s
business, with local government sending about 50 people a year to the
company for five-month evaluations. (Specialisterne considers some for
consulting jobs; others might end up doing clerical work, mowing lawns
or other tasks for municipalities.) The Specialisterne evaluators
place the candidates in groups for part of the time to see how well
they work in teams, in addition to assessing the skills (reasoning,
following directions, attending to details) that are naturally on
display in a Mindstorms session. The assignments also reveal how a
person handles trouble. More than once a candidate has become derailed
because a Lego piece does not match the shade of gray depicted in the
manual. Yet it is also not uncommon for a candidate to notice a
struggling partner, stop and patiently explain how to get back on
track.

The Specialisterne school uses Legos, too. Frank Paulsen, a red-haired
man with a thin beard who is the school’s principal, told me about a
session he once led in which he handed out small Lego boxes to a group
of young men and asked them to build something that showed their
lives. When the bricks had been snapped together, Paulsen asked each
boy to say a few words. One boy didn’t want to talk, saying his
construction was “nothing.” When Paulsen gathered his belongings to
leave, however, the boy, his teacher by his side, seemed to want to
stay. Paulsen tried to draw him out but failed. So Paulsen excused
himself and stood up.

The boy grabbed Paulsen’s arm. “Actually,” he said, “I think I built
my own life.”

Paulsen eased back into his seat.

“This is me,” the boy said, pointing to a skeleton penned in by a
square structure with high walls. A gray chain hung from the back
wall, and a drooping black net formed the roof. To the side, outside
the wall, two figures – a man with a red baseball cap and a woman
raising a clear goblet to her lips – stood by a translucent blue
sphere filled with little gold coins. That, the boy continued,
represented “normal life.” In front of the skeleton were low walls
between a pair of tan pillars, and a woman with a brown pony tail
looked in, brandishing a yellow hairbrush. “That is my mom, and she is
the only one who is allowed in the walls.”

The boy’s teacher was listening, astonished: In the years she’d known
him, she told Paulsen later, she had never heard him discuss his inner
life. Paulsen talked to the boy, now animated, for a quarter of an
hour about the walls, and Paulsen suggested that perhaps the barriers
could be removed. “I can’t take down the walls,” the boy concluded,
“because there is so much danger outside of them.”

In June, Sonne announced the opening of a United States headquarters
in Wilmington, Del. The state’s governor, Jack Markell, was there, as
was a representative from CAI, the company that is Specialisterne’s
first real partner in the United States. The company says it plans to
begin recruiting and training autistic software testers in Delaware
next month, and if all goes well, it will expand the program to other
states. Specialisterne is also talking with Microsoft about setting up
a pilot program in Fargo, N.D., where it has a large
software-development operation.

Tyler Cowen, an economist at George Mason University (and a regular
contributor to The Times), published a much-discussed paper last year
that addressed the ways that autistic workers are being drawn into the
modern economy. The autistic worker, Cowen wrote, has an unusually
wide variation in his or her skills, with higher highs and lower lows.
Yet today, he argued, it is increasingly a worker’s greatest skill,
not his average skill level, that matters. As capitalism has grown
more adept at disaggregating tasks, workers can focus on what they do
best, and managers are challenged to make room for brilliant, if
difficult, outliers. This march toward greater specialization,
combined with the pressing need for expertise in science, technology,
engineering and mathematics, so-called STEM workers, suggests that the
prospects for autistic workers will be on the rise in the coming
decades. If the market can forgive people’s weaknesses, then they will
rise to the level of their natural gifts.

“Specialization is partly about making good use of the skills of
people who have one type of skill in abundance but not necessarily
others,” says Daron Acemoglu, an economist at M.I.T. and co-author of
“Why Nations Fail.” In other words, there is good money to be made
doing the work that others do not have the skills for or are simply
not interested in.

As Sonne tries to build up his business in the United States, though,
he faces practical challenges. For one thing, in Denmark, the
government helps cover some of the additional expense of managing
autistic workers, and it pays Specialisterne so it can give its
employees full-time salaries even though they only work part time.
Specialisterne pays its consultants in Denmark between $22 and $39 an
hour, a rate negotiated with unions, and in Delaware it plans to start
with salaries between $20 and $30 an hour. And while two Delaware
charitable foundations have pledged $800,000 to Specialisterne, Sonne
estimates that it will take $1.36 million, and three years, for the
business to become self-sustaining.

Another challenge involves expectations. A new stereotype of autistic
people as brainiacs, endowed with quirky superminds, is just as
misguided as the old assumption that autistic people are mentally
disabled, Sonne says. Autistic people, like everyone else, have
diverse abilities and interests, and Specialisterne can’t employ all
of them. Most people Specialisterne evaluates in Denmark don’t have
the right qualities to be a consultant – they are too troubled, too
reluctant to work in an office or simply lack the particular skills
Specialisterne requires. The company hires only about one in six of
the men and women it assesses.

April Schnell, who is organizing a Specialisterne effort in the
Midwest and has an autistic son, told me that she traveled to
Copenhagen for a conference organized by the company for their
volunteers from around the world. One day, she and the others were
given the Mindstorms challenges used to assess candidates. As she
struggled to solve one of the more difficult ones, she realized that
her son, Tim, who is 15, would find the work uninteresting and
probably too difficult: Specialisterne is not likely to be the answer
for him. “I was just very aware, there is a gap here,” she said. “My
heart was a little sad.”

One Friday evening, Sonne drove me to his house southwest of
Copenhagen, navigating through whipping rain and the last clots of
rush-hour traffic. Lars was waiting at the door to welcome us. Now 16,
Lars evokes a Tolkien elf – thin and blond with exceptionally pale
skin. He was outgoing from the start, eager to give me a tour of the
house, yet he only glanced at my face.

Lars has the sweet demeanor of a much younger boy. Several times he
affectionately rubbed his father’s head, the hair a short thin fur,
calling the bald spot “Mr. Moon.” He gushed about trains, and at
dinner Annette gently told him that we might not want to hear too much
more about international conventions on track signals. I played Lars
in a round of speed chess in the living room. There was never much
doubt about the outcome, but at one point he issued an earnest
warning: “Take care to not weaken your king’s position unnecessarily.”
It was too late. After we put the pieces away, I complimented him on
his final moves – an elegant and lethal attack with rooks, a bishop
and a knight – and he did a balletic twirl, arms out. I joked with his
family about how crushed I felt in defeat, and Lars walked over and
put a consoling hand on my shoulder. Perhaps, I suggested to Lars, I
would be allowed a rematch? “No,” he said simply.

When I asked Lars what he thought about his father’s company, he said
he has played with the Mindstorms robots but does not see himself
working there. “I want to be a train driver,” Lars announced. “It is
the country’s most beautiful job. You get to control a lot of
horsepower. Who wouldn’t want to do that?”

At the outset, it was Thorkil’s aim to persuade Danish tech companies
to hire his autistic employees. Now he wants all kinds of companies,
all over the world, to learn from what Speecialisterne is doing. He
figures that if he is successful, then maybe a national railway will
consider hiring a candidate as seemingly unlikely as his son, as long
as he has the right skills.

Certainly he has seen how transformative getting the right job can be
for the autistic workers themselves. Before coming to Specialisterne,
Iversen, who works at TDC, had not had a job for 12 years and spent
the days sleeping and nights surfing the Internet. Niels Kjaer once
worked as a physicist, receiving his diagnosis only after becoming
clinically depressed when he didn’t get an academic job. When he came
to Specialisterne, where he works on improving technology that grades
eggs as they pass by on a conveyor belt, he was on sick leave from a
job driving a cab.

Christian Andersen, who works at Lundbeck, the pharmaceutical company,
was bullied and beaten for years as a schoolboy. He received his
diagnosis at age 15 only because, fearing he might be suicidal, he
checked himself into a hospital. After high school – inspired by a
Hemingwayesque teacher who regaled his students with tales of outdoor
exploits – Andersen tried a vocational school for landscaping. But he
was overwhelmed by the requirement that he learn to drive. He tried
another tech school but flailed, became depressed and had a breakdown
in 2005. Andersen was living at home without prospects, playing video
games. He couldn’t even land a job at a grocery store. Later that
year, his parents encouraged him to apply to Specialisterne.

I joined Andersen one morning on his commute to Lundbeck’s
headquarters across town. Riding on a yellow city bus, we talked about
video games. He still loves Halo; Diablo 3 he finds frustrating. “You
turn a corner and then – splat! – you are dead.” As we drew closer to
the office, our conversation drifted to his job. He spoke with
surprising insight about the psychological importance of work. “I have
grown very much as a person,” Andersen told me. “I have become more
confident and self-assured.” The job allowed him to move out of his
parents’ house and into an apartment. After a while, Andersen informed
me, he “started using body language.” It’s not something anyone taught
him. He just watched people, he said, and “monkey see, monkey do.”

When he started at Lundbeck, he was constantly anxious because he
dreaded making an error. Now the stress grips him far less often and
is readily dispelled with a phone call to a coach at Specialisterne.
He admits to being proud, having come so far. He was touched to be
invited recently to join his department for some after-work bowling.
But he doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about these aspects of his
employment anymore. “Of course it feels good,” Andersen said, “but
there is such a thing as ‘here we go again.’ ” It’s only a job, after
all.

Gareth Cook is a Pulitzer Prize winner, a columnist for The Boston
Globe and editor of ”Best American Infographics” (fall 2013).
Editor: Vera Titunik

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