Page last updated at 04:39 GMT, Friday, 17 July 2009 05:39 UK

Why a firm wants staff with autism

By Jane Dreaper
Health correspondent, BBC News

Lego models
Lego is used to test skills

A computer company in Denmark which has made huge strides in employing workers with autism is expecting to begin work in the UK soon.

Specialisterne was started by a Danish man whose own son has autism.

Thorkil Sonne now employs more than 40 people with autism.

He is finalising plans to set up a branch in Glasgow in the coming months.

He hopes to hire 50 workers in the first three years of operating in Scotland.

Autism affects about 1% of the population across Europe.

According to the National Autistic Society (NAS), people with the condition say a job is the one thing that would really improve their lives.

And yet a survey by Autism Europe shows 62% of adults with autism do not have any work at all.

Difficulties

I visited Specialisterne and met Soeren Ljunghan, 42.

He has a form of autism called Asperger's Syndrome.

It gives him focus and persistence - traits which have helped him become a champion weight-lifter.

But autistic people find social interaction and unpredictability difficult. Soeren endured a spell of unemployment.

He said: "It was a living hell.

"I kept going to job interviews but coming second and wondering why I wasn't chosen.

"It was very stressful. I began to question whether I would work again."

Thorkil Sonne
People come to me who've had difficulties in the labour market and got depressed. They're like computers that need re-booting
Thorkil Sonne

At Specialisterne, Soeren works 25 hours a week testing software.

He said: "I like the work because I know what to expect from each day."

The company's founder, Thorkil Sonne, recognises his staff with autism need a quiet environment and fixed routines.

Given the right conditions, they excel at technical tasks.

Robots and Lego models are used to test their skills.

Thorkil Sonne said: "People come to me who've had difficulties in the labour market and got depressed.

"They're like computers that need re-booting.

"I see them grow in self-esteem.

"It's the most motivating part of my work and a magical moment for me, as the father of a boy with autism."

Thorkil's son Lars was diagnosed at the age of three. He is now 12.

Fulfilling lives

Thorkil told me: "I read up about the condition - but there were too many books describing what people can't do.

"And yet my staff are able to go and work at the premises of our customers.

"I'm so proud. I didn't think that would be possible when I started the company five years ago."

The experience in Denmark shows autistic workers are an untapped resource.

Politicians in the UK are developing plans to help adults with autism lead more fulfilling lives.

Special strategies have been published in Wales and Northern Ireland.

A bill that will provide the first specific legislation on autism for England is making its way through Parliament at the moment, with good cross-party support.

It will lead to formal guidance for local authorities and the NHS about how to help adults with autism.

Charities say this cannot come soon enough.



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