Changing attitudes about autism, one job at a time

"It's asking: Are you human or a machine?" Mr Tobias Ussing says as his fingers race across the keyboard. The 30-year-old data expertis programming his computer to collect data on how to get a company to the top of a Google search list.

A section on the screen asks him to key in some letters as a security control.

"Yeah, I'm human," he says, and with instinctive speed, keys in the jumbled letters on the screen.

Mr Ussing doesn't mind being called a nerd. But he does mind being placed in one category - as an autistic. He was diagnosed with the developmental disability autism at the age of 14.

"I once had to have a blood test and the nurse wanted to know if there was anything wrong with me. I said I had autism and she said - 'well, can you come back when you're well again', " he says with a smile. "There's so much ignorance and prejudice about autism."

The US Department of Health Centres for Disease Control estimates 1 per cent of the world's population is born with some form of autism, a congenital, biological development disability that manifests itself in distinctive communicative or social behaviour or conceptive abilities.

Danish and international studies have shown that as many as eight out of 10 people with autism are left out of the labour market - at enormous cost to society.

Mr Ussing too was unemployed for two years, until he contacted The Specialists six months ago. The Danish non-profit organisation aims to change the view of autism, and prove that autistic people can benefit businesses and a society's economy.

Mr Ussing is one of 35 people with autism employed as IT consultants by The Specialists. For 20 hours a week, he solves IT tasks for business and public sector clients.

One of The Specialists' clients is Danish pension fund ATP, which has a group of Specialists' consultants working for it.

Said ATP section manager Vibeke Brask of its workers: "There are very few mistakes and they are able to handle long lists that the rest of us just can't fathom. And as far as motivation is concerned, many of our employees would run cold in doing what the Specialists can do for several hours at a time."

The Specialists was founded 10 years ago by Mr Thorkil Sonne, whose son was born with autism.

"The Specialists was not started as a company to create a job for my son, as I had no idea what he would want to be," he says. "But the goal was to change society's attitude towards him and everyone else with autism so they would meet more understanding and have better options in life."

The Specialists, and its Specialist People's Foundation, are represented in nine countries. It counts as partners German software group SAP and American global IT group CAI, and has also begun discussions with IT giant Intel, as well as US retail chain Walmart.

With such success, Mr Sonne has expanded his goal of creating jobs for 1,000 autistic people - a number he has almost reached - to one million.

"People with autism are able to do all sorts of jobs in the IT sector, the pharmaceutical industry and the financial sector," he says.

"In fact I believe that at least 5 per cent of the tasks in any business segment would be perfect for people with autism, as they bring job satisfaction with them to jobs where there was previously none."

Jakob.sorgenfri@pol.dk