Canada is the latest country to join an ambitious global campaign to educate companies and governments about the benefits of hiring people with autism in the work force, with a goal of seeing one million autistic people employed by 2020, including 10,000 in Canada.
Danish founder Thorkil Sonne announced his organization Specialisterne is teaming today with business management software giant SAP Canada Inc., whose parent company has set a company-wide goal of having 1 per cent of its global work force compromising people on the autism spectrum by the end of this decade.
In an interview from Vancouver, the 53-year-old Sonne said he was inspired to advocate for autistic employment and empowerment after his youngest son was diagnosed at age 3. "In Denmark, I saw the labour market getting more and more rigid, basically sending the message if you don't have the social skills then there's no room for you. I felt that was quite unfair."
When Sonne and his wife received their son's diagnosis, he recalls thinking: "Why is life so unfair? Why us?
"We don't feel that way any more. Because we realized that maybe it's not our son, and all the others similar to him, who is the problem. Maybe it's society's outlook that is the problem. I decided to advocate for ways to make room for people who are outside the mainstream in our society."
Specialisterne will have headquarters in Toronto, Vancouver and Quebec City. The not-for-profit foundation – which includes many parents of autistic children – uses an IT consulting business to show companies how to train and employ people with autism in their organizations. To date, Specialisterne has offices in 12 countries including Denmark, India, Iceland, Britain, Norway, Poland, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, Spain and the United States.
"People affected by autism are an underestimated, underutilized resource in Canada, and around the world," said Sonne, who mortgaged his family home in Denmark to get Specialisterne started. He adds that people with autism are strong candidates in fields including information technology, science, engineering, and mathematics. The reason, he explains, is they often have skill sets ideally suited to working in highly structured environments, where companies need people with strong attention to detail and who are good at repetitive tasks. Such areas may include quality assurance, software testing, data entry, as well as data analysis.
"Many companies find it hard to find people motivated to do those kinds of things," adds Sonne, who has also placed autistic people in the financial, pharmaceutical, insurance and government sectors.
"The labour market is not used to seeing people with disabilities as valuable resources," says Sonne, whose autistic son is now 16. "It's an area that is pretty unexplored, and that's the mindset we want to change."
He added he is finalizing another corporate partner in Canada, but is not yet able to disclose the name.