Accelerating Employment Globally of People with Autism Spectrum Disorders

Accelerating Employment Globally of People with Autism Spectrum Disorders

Organization type: 
nonprofit/ngo/citizen sector
$500,000 - $1 million
Project Summary
Elevator Pitch

Concise Summary: Help us pitch this solution! Provide an explanation within 3-4 short sentences.

Provide employment and career opportunities for the 1% of the world’s population who generally are kept out of the job market due to their handicap, autism spectrum disorders. We have set a goal for the next 10 years to enable (at least) one million new jobs for “specialist people”, that is our term for people with a business potential who needs special understanding and support to excel. We will achieve our goal by turning special abilities hidden behind the disabilities into competitive market advantages and put specialist people in places where they are given the understanding and support needed to excel. We want to provide competitive consultancy services at market terms in order to be able to mainstream employment of specialist people in the business sector.

About Project

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

We are aiming our efforts at people on the autism spectrum globally, where over 90% are unemployed. Statistics indicate that the prevalence rate of people with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) exceeds 1% of the population, but not everyone (in particular older people) is diagnosed today. Due to their condition, people with ASD do not ‘fit in’ in today’s societies and mostly been rejected by the labour market as they have not been able to meet the standard requirements of being flexible, team players, empathic and good at handling stress They risk not being understood in the family, being bullied at school, dropping out of higher education, being rejected by the employers and a life in loneliness. Together with Deloitte we have developed an operation model including a number of tools to tailor and implement the Specialisterne concept in new locations. We have developed a planning process including feasibility study and business plan which makes it possible to localize the concept into difference traditions, cultures and welfare states in corporation with stakeholders from autism community, authorities and business. We combine our knowledge share and collaboration model with local ownership as Specialisterne licensees are owned and operated by local social entrepreneurs, foundations or enterprises.

Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!

We have an innovative yet proven business concept that is based around employing vulnerable people with autism spectrum disorders in valuable and meaningful jobs typically within the hi-tech sector, leveraging their unique competences within passion for and attention to detail, perseverance and out-of-the box thinking. Basically, we are taking previously unemployable people (typically over 90% of people with ASD are unemployed), assessing their skills and competences, training them further and placing them in roles where their skills are helping them excel. We have developed a management model (called the Dandelion model) that allows us to accomplish great results with this specific group of vulnerable people. The Specialisterne and “Dandelion” management model can also be extended to other groups such as those with ADHD, which is part of our stated focus over time. We are the first to provide a market based employment concept of this kind which includes a scaling component into main stream employment. No other organization is known to us with the same ambition and concept. We are addressing the what most adults with ASD are longing for - meaningful employments which will give them an identity in life and grow their quality of life.
Impact: How does it Work

Example: Walk us through a specific example(s) of how this solution makes a difference; include its primary activities.

We are operating a model which involves assessing competences, training and employment of people with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). The model is based on more than seven years of proven business operations in Denmark through the “Specialisterne” company. We are now licensing the knowledge and tools to independent operators of the model globally and have invested much time in defining and documenting our approach. SPF has so far started up in two countries, the UK (Scotland) and Iceland, and are planning for another six countries this year. The model of Specialisterne builds upon two parts: 1) the assessment unit that offers training, assessment and provides job profiles to individuals with an ASD diagnose; and 2) the job enabling or business unit that works with individuals diagnosed with ASD within IT or related areas that require passion for detail, perseverance and persistence.
About You
Specialist People Foundation
About You
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About Your Organization
Organization Name

Specialist People Foundation

Organization Country
Country where this project is creating social impact
How long has your organization been operating?

More than 5 years

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What stage is your project in?

Operating for more than 5 years

Share the story of the founder and what inspired the founder to start this project

Thorkil Sonne, an Ashoka Globalizer Fellow, founded Specialisterne in 2004 when his youngest son was diagnosed with autism. Thorkil realized that he will probably be excluded from society because he does not comply with the required social skills.
In order to make room for his son and everybody else with the same challenges he founded Specialisterne (Danish for ‘The Specialists’) as the first company in the world where individuals with autism can use their strengths and contribute to the business sector at market terms.
Specialisterne provides competitive services like software testing and data entries mainly for large IT companies. The ambition is to go into new business areas where passion for details is needed.
Specialist People Foundation was founded by Thorkil Sonne in order to take over the ownership of Specialisterne and to use the experiences from the first years of pioneer work to make a global impact and thereby responding to people from more than 60 countries who encouraged us to start up employment opportunities in their country.
The vision of Specialist People Foundation is o make societies globally respect and accommodate specialist people as worthy and valuable citizens.
The goal is to enable one million meaningful and productive jobs for specialist people.

Social Impact
Please describe how your project has been successful and how that success is measured

Specialisterne is internationally recognized as the first and foremost showcase example of how people with ASD can be come effectively integrated in society and provide real value of high quality to their employers. Specialisterne has successfully been operating in the Danish society since 2004, and are today involving over 100 people as staff, candidates, students and consultants.
The first international Specialisterne operation outside Denmark opened in Scotland in August 2010, supported initially by grants and regional development funds. Specialisterne Iceland opened up on World Autism Awareness Day, 2 April 2011.
Enabled by grant from private foundations and the EU, SPF is in the process of also starting up operations in Poland and is conducting feasibility studies in countries such as Ireland, Germany, Spain and USA. This track record demonstrates both the validity of the core concept and the feasibility of implementing as a social business globally.
In the planning process for Specialisterne Scotland, an independent analyst certified in Social Return on Investment (Social ROI) analysis estimated a social return on investment of 4:1 over a 5 year period from starting up in Glasgow. In other words, for every public £1 invested by society in the Specialisterne operation in Scotland, £4 comes out as a return to the society on investment through savings in areas such as direct medical (physicians, therapies & drugs), direct non-medical (care, special education & supported employment) and indirect areas (own and parental lost productivity).
Specialisterne is a case study at Harvard Business School and has been named as ‘One of 12 shocking ideas which could change the world’ by Wired Magazine. Specialisterne was named ‘Best Large Social Firm Europe 2006’ by CEFEC.
The founder has received the Autism Prize 2004 from Autism Denmark and the IT Prize 2008 by the Danish IT Industry Association.

How many people have been impacted by your project?


How many people could be impacted by your project in the next three years?

More than 10,000

How will your project evolve over the next three years?

We are looking to enter numerous countries globally with our unique concept by exporting the Specialisterne model to a local context, adapted for the local social and business system. Interested parties in over 60 countries and 30 US states have encouraged us to transfer our knowledge to their countries in order to enable employment opportunities for specialist people there. Specifically, we are working with Maryland, New York and Minnesota states on starting up Specialisterne in early 2012.
We are looking to enter India during 2013 and China likely in 2014, subject to procurement of funding. We expect to tailor our approach significantly for these very large countries as the diagnosis protocols and situation around people with ASD are significantly different than in western societies.

What barriers might hinder the success of your project and how do you plan to overcome them?

Funding: we are today dependent on project funding, typically of 80% project value, requiring us to fund the remaining 20% from other sources. We need also to build up additional capacity to support the new partners, and add human resources to our organization. Unless we are successful in procuring adequate funding we are restricted in realizing the potential in our concept. We are therefore looking for strategic funding partners within the philanthropic and corporate sectors to allow us to rapidly scale and ramp up our licensees to achieve sustainability.

Scaling strategy: we need to manage the risks in expanding in scaling globally by successfully adapting our model in number of larger international markets before settling on the right and most efficient global scaling strategy. We need to optimize the model in our initial markets and develop best practices for accelerated global scaling, possibly by ”open sourcing” the entire model (making all our knowledge available for free to everyone wishing to join our community), and offering consulting, support and certification services for the planning and operations of Specialisterne-businesses.

Acceptance of Specialisterne-entities as new entrants in the market: We need stakeholders across societies to join as partners in supporting and growing the acceptance of the Specialisterne concept, and helping us to remove the barriers that exist amongst authorities and corporations to buy services from new market entrants such as local Specialisterne operations.

Tell us about your partnerships

Specialist People Foundation is currently funded from donations and project grants, but is operating a license based model (flat annual fees and royalty on topline revenue of licensees) whereby we will reach breakeven within five years through a number of licensee partnerships. Grants and donations will however remain critical within a five years horizon as we are ramping up licensees and they are building and scaling their businesses.

We partner with local companies on setting up Specialisterne businesses, who are operating under license from us. Specialisterne is a for-profit model, where each business is locally owned and should achieve break-even within 3-5 years.

We have a corporation with World Autism Organization and are in a process of forming a partnership with Lions Club International.

Explain your selections

Foundations provide us with project grants and help us build capacity.
Businesses are essentially the customers of Specialisterne services, but can also elect to support SPF with grants and donations, and may consume future services from us as well e.g. mentoring services for employment of people with ASD in the mainstream workplace.
Regional and National government are key stakeholders to provide some level of financial support in particular for the training and assessment parts of our model. They are also important to help provide the right environment for operating the business.

How do you plan to strengthen your project in the next three years?

Capacity building through grants and donations: Required to support our increasing community of license partners and evolve the Specialisterne operational model, tools and knowledge base.
Building a critical mass of license partners: Set up further Specialisterne operations globally with local operating partners, responsible for procuring the start-up funding and operating the business. Focus on the replication of "localized" Specialisterne operations in Europe and USA, and enter India, China, and likely one or two locations in the Middle East and Africa.
Broaden knowledge dissemination and collaboration: Establish a Specialist People Academy (SPA) in USA, and possibly India & China, to offer stakeholders training in our concept and methods, and to research & develop services and programs for people with ASD. Develop new business areas outside the IT area incl. services for schools, universities etc. to educate people in our methodologies and concept in order to provide better understanding and support for specialist people. We will over time expand our focus beyond high functioning people with ASD in the IT sector.
Engagement with partner from the Corporate sector: Ensure people with ASD are getting embedded into mainstream corporate employment with an appropriate offering/value proposition, supported with innovative mentoring models to both the corporate staff (as employers of people with ASD) and the people with ASD themselves. The corporate partners will be supported partly SPF, the Specialist People Academy and by local Specialisterne licensees.

Which barriers to employment does your innovation address?
Please select up to three in order of relevancy to your project.




Lack of skills/training


Other (Specify Below)

Please describe how your innovation specifically tackles the barriers listed above.

Underemployment: The model of Specialisterne is proven and innovative solution for addressing unemployment through a for-profit model involving a large important part of the world’s population, namely 1% or more of vulnerable people with autism spectrum disorders. It focuses on inclusion in the workplace and the leverage of unique competencies found in these people.
Lack of skills/training: We provide a training and assessment model, through which disabilities are turned into specialist abilities that businesses need.
Social exclusion: Our experience is that if you can make the individual with ASD feel comfortable and make the right match with assignments and working conditions it will be a win-win situation for the individual, the corporation and for the persons inclusion in society.

Are you trying to scale your organization or initiative?
If yes, please check up to three potential pathways in order of relevancy to you.


Grown geographic reach: Multi-country


Grown geographic reach: Global


Influenced other organizations and institutions through the spread of best practices

Please describe which of your growth activities are current or planned for the immediate future.

Our current activities are centered on replicating Specialisterne as commercially sound showcases in countries and regions across the world.

In order to support our operations in other regions of the world than Western Europe, we are looking for means to establish research and knowledge sharing centres (called Specialist People Academy) to broaden the access to our knowledge and methodologies and interact with interested parties globally.
Once we are establishing the Specialist People Academies, we will be able to engage with mainstream corporations and make it attractive for them to learn about and adopt our unique Dandelion management model and methodologies, which makes it possible to hire and manage skilled specialist people in the mainstream labor market.

Do you collaborate with any of the following: (Check all that apply)

NGOs/Nonprofits, For profit companies, Academia/universities.

If yes, how have these collaborations helped your innovation to succeed?

The Maryland Department of Disability is working with us to replicate the concept to the US.
Lions Club International is working with us on a model of how to involve their members at grass root level.
Our corporate partners are working with us to form internships and tailor our services to fit the needs in the business.
Members of the Ashoka Support Networks are helping us with methodology and legal support.
Specialisterne is a case study at Harvard Business School.