New company targets autistic staff

AUTISTIC people in Scotland are to be helped find specialist work testing software.

Specialisterne Scotland has been developed from a Danish project that has helped people with autism find jobs who, because of their condition, might otherwise remain unemployed.

The work - testing software and websites for companies - taps into the characteristics and skills people with autism possess, such as accuracy, precision and attention to detail.

In the next six months, Specialisterne, which has been developed by Community Enterprise in Scotland (CEiS) with the National Autistic Society Scotland and the Autism Research Centre, will employ 12 trainees to be based in Glasgow. It plans to increase the workforce to 61, including 50 people with autism, by 2015.

Thorkil Sonne, founder of Specialisterne and the Specialist People Foundation, set up the project in Denmark in 2004 after his son, Lars, was diagnosed with autism aged three.

He expected to receive advice on how to make the most for child's future, but was instead told that he was disabled and to forget any plans made for him.

"Actually, it is not him who is the problem; it is society that is the problem," Mr Sonne said. "He is a clever child who would be a wonderful employee: loyal, trustworthy, professional, open-minded, no hidden agendas."

Now 13, Lars wants to work for Specialisterne for three years before becoming a train driver.

The Danish firm now employs more than 50 people and has a turnover of 1.5 million. Gerry Higgins, chief executive of CEiS, said: "Specialisterne Scotland has the potential to change lives for the better by providing mainstream employment at the market rate."

Only about 13 per cent of people with autism in Scotland are in full-time employment, with 52 per cent financially dependent on their families. Mr Higgins said a number of businesses in Scotland had expressed an interest in using Specialisterne employees when it starts commercial testing next year.

A software tester working for Specialisterne can expect a starting salary of about 20,000, but this could rise to more than 30,000 for testing analysts.

The business has been set up with more than 1.1 million of funding, including 700,000 from the Scottish Government's Scottish Investment Fund - 500,000 of which is a loan. The project has also received 407,000 from the Big Lottery and 30,000 from Glasgow City Council.

Case study

Daniel Tronborg was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome - a form of autism - at the age of 20.

Now 21, he has now found he is able to work as part of the Specialisterne scheme in Denmark. "They only started trying to diagnose me three years ago, when I was getting depressed. It was actually the best thing that happened to me," Mr Tronborg said as he helped launched Specialisterne Scotland in Glasgow.

He trains people at Specialisterne Denmark how to use Lego Mindstorm - an advanced Lego building kit, which allows users to develop testing and problem-solving skills that can then be used in software and website analysis. "You can invent what you want. You can make the greatest things. There is just that freedom," he said.

Like other people with Asperger's, Mr Tronborg has a number of skills useful in employment, including a photographic memory and an ability to pick up new languages quickly.

"The doctor said I could look at a map and then find my way without ever looking at the map again."