Thorkil Sonne decides the best way to help his autistic son Lars, is to change the way the world thinks about the condition.
At the age of 40, Thorkil Sonne had everything going for him: he was a successful executive in a big company and had a happy family life with a wife and three children.
Then Lars, his youngest son, was diagnosed with high functioning autism at age three.
Thorkil got his hands on various books on autism, but what he read was depressing: every book talked about what not to expect of a person with autism; what an autistic person could not do. Few, if any, spoke about what a person with the condition could be good at.
Those with autism typically show difficulties in social interactions and often struggle to read social cues such as sarcasm, irony or facial expressions. They may engage in repetitive behaviour, be resistant to changes in routine and be highly sensitive to stress.
Together with his wife, Annette, Thorkil thought ahead to the future, when they would no longer be around to fight Lars’ battles for him.
He decided that the way to help his son, and other families trying to cope with autism, was to change mindsets so that society would come to appreciate the special gifts of such people; not ignore, pity or even just tolerate and extend charity to them, but to value them as useful members of society.
He started by setting up a company to change the work culture in his native Denmark.
The banks were not convinced, however, and refused to extend the loan he needed. So he and Annette re-mortgaged their family home to start Specialisterne, which means the Specialists.
He refused to offer his employees’ services on the cheap, or to build his business model on the good graces of other companies’ corporate social responsibility programmes.
Instead, he positioned his staff members as specialists – particularly well-suited to repetitive tasks that require sustained concentration and great attention to detail – and charged a premium for their skills.
The profit-making firm has created about 50 jobs and provided a suitable environment to draw out quality output from people who had often found themselves shunned by employers because of a lack of social skills, an inability to manage stress, uncertainty or constant change in the workplace.
Specialisterne now counts brand names such as Microsoft, Siemens, Nokia, IBM, Cisco and Deloitte as its clients, has become a case study at the Harvard Business School and received several international awards.
But Thorkil wasn’t content. He wanted to change minds, influence society, take his idea beyond Denmark.
So he started the Specialist People Foundation in 2008 and sold his company to the non-profit outfit. Its goal is to enable one million jobs for specialist people.
He calls the one million goal “a crazy ambition”, and makes clear that he cannot do it without the support of Annette, Lars, and his other sons Rasmus, 23, and Anders, 20.
“It takes a patient wife and a very good marriage to do what I’m doing,” the effable man with a ready laugh says. “This is not just a Thorkil Sonne thing, it’s actually a family thing.”
In fact, Lars, now 15, has told his dad that when he’s too old to do his work – “he thinks I’m already old,” Thorkil says – he’ll continue for him.
For now, the spritely Thorkil keeps going, spurred on by the people he meets around the world: families coping with autism, educators, business people and others also keen to change mindsets.
“I use a lot of energy but I also get a lot of energy out of so many people. Every time I can help one family, I’m very happy, and the idea that I may be able to help on a big scale is really motivating me a lot.”
Thorkil Sonne is a Fellow of Ashoka, a global association of leading social entrepreneurs with which we have a Memorandum of Understanding to jointly promote social innovation and entrepreneurship through regular visit programmes, study trips and forums.