Thirty-year-old Tobias Ussing admits that his Asperger syndrome, on the milder end of the autism spectrum, is “a lot to work with.” Despite loads of motivation and experience, finding a permanent job has been a challenge, even though he is a highly capable computer programmer who began coding  in the 1980s on a Commodore 64.
Nonetheless, three years ago he and a friend built what has become the official YouTube plug-in for the Xbox Media Center. Since its first release in August, 2010, the program has had more than 19 million installs. Ussing says he programs “in my spare time” while “lying in my bed the entire day.”
Specialisterne, a company founded in his native Denmark, got Ussing “out of the gutter,” he says. Specialisterne means “The Specialists” in Danish, and the company helps people with autism spectrum disorders find work.

Daniel Schmidt, 17, works in IT support intern at a Danish shipping company.
Daniel Schmidt, 17, works as an IT-support intern at a Danish shipping company.

Thorkil Sonne founded Specialisterne in 2004 because his son, Lars, who had been diagnosed at age three with autism, demonstrated an incredible aptitude for processing large amounts of information and catching details. During a TEDx talk in Germany in 2010, Sonne described meeting many adolescents and adults who, like Lars, were highly skilled, but unable to secure work that tapped their special skills.
Sonne and his wife worried about what would happen to their son: “We thought if he could have a job where he could be respected and appreciated for his special individuality and for his skills, he would be a happy man when we grow old.”
Sonne quit his upper-level management position with a Danish telecommunications company to start Specialisterne, and the company’s operations have since created an estimated 100-200 jobs, according to Sonne. (Sonne’s son Lars, a 16-year-old high school student whose main interests are trains, chess, and comedy, has yet to enter the job market.)
“In any business area, probably 5 percent of all tasks fit very well with our people,” Sonne told Techonomy. He sees a “huge, huge opportunity” to develop the concept. “We’ve just scratched the surface.”
With offices in the U.S., Switzerland, Norway, Germany, Ireland, the U.K., Austria, Poland, and Iceland, Specialisterne grabbed headlines in May for partnering with SAP AG to hire people with autism in six of the the multinational software giant’s offices in Canada, Germany, and the U.S.
A June 2011, New York Times profile of Specialisterne caught the attention of Delaware Governor Jack Markell. That led to Sonne setting up a U.S. headquarters in Delaware. The state will fund assessment training for prospective Specialisterne employees. Though it aims to sustain itself as a traditional consultancy, in the U.S. it is set up as a not-for-profit, with donations and grants a key source of revenue. The aim is to raise funding for new locations and a national support organization.
Sonne has been working with a trainee group at Computer Aid Inc. (CAI) in Delaware. The IT services firm employs 3,300 associates nationwide, and impressively announced the goal of hiring people with autism for at least 3 percent of its consultancy workforce by 2016.
For CAI, Specialisterne assesses candidates in a scrum framework. Scrums are commonly used in the tech sector and involve breaking into small, fast-paced teams, working in intense bursts, presenting ideas, and focusing on a common goal. Such tasks tend to be regarded as difficult for people with autism, and the scrums serve as a way to introduce candidates to the development environment.
A Specialisterne student with ASD works with a Lego Mindstorm Robot.
A Specialisterne candidate with ASD works with a Lego Mindstorm Robot.

To determine a candidate’s comfort zone, Specialisterne asks those in the groups to work with Lego Mindstorm Robots—small, customizable machines with sensors that can be simply programmed to do things like follow a black line. Candidates can thus demonstrate their abilities rather than have to explain them. Four weeks of evaluations allows Specialisterne to describe candidates’ personal business profiles instead of their disabilities.
Johnni Jensen manages three Specialisterne employees at Danish telecommunications company, TDC. He initially had one Specialisterne employee on his team and this number has since grown to three. They work out of TDC’s offices, testing mobile phones and apps, but in a separate room, as the larger office space can be overwhelming for them. Jensen says they never make short cuts, and what distinguishes them from other employees is they are happy doing repetitive work.
He says initial communication with Specialisterne’s employees was challenging; no eye contact could be made. Seven years later, using a calm and patient approach, Jensen says their interactions with the rest of the department are “completely normal.”
“It took a long time, they require a little longer mutual time when you start off, as they are sensitive and uncertain. They are very afraid of not doing the job well enough, but we are beyond that point now.”
Since joining Specialisterne over a year ago Ussing has had the opportunity to work on a variety of projects. When Techonomy spoke with him he was working on a project to aggregate information from multiple databases to help a client determine where and how to most efficiently administer drug tests to traveling athletes.
Ussing acknowledges some tasks can be mundane: “I might get bored, but it will take me a lot longer. And maybe I won’t get bored at all. If you find the thing you really excel at, you will do it better than a neurotypical person.” Ussing says his work at Specialisterne has grown increasingly interesting over time and that the company is good at giving him assignments that he wants to do. “Every month I’m here I have more energy. I can get more done. Just that you have to get up in the morning and go to work does a lot.”
Eventually, Sonne hopes to expand to help those on the autism spectrum with less business potential as well as people with challenges like ADHD and OCD. For now, he says he considers boredom among employees a good sign. “As your confidence grows you are more open to new challenges, so it’s a good sign when people say, ‘I want to do something more.’”