Partnership aims to hire more autistic workers in Delaware and beyond

A national information technology consulting firm will join with a Danish firm to increase the number of autistic workers in the IT industry.

What’s the difference between a plant and a weed?  It depends on how you view it.  Take the dandelion.  Many backyard gardeners do their best to vanquish the hated weed, but a farmer in Denmark makes his living growing the plant that others just see as a problem.

Seeing the potential and not the problem is part of the idea behind a partnership announced Wednesday morning by Delaware Governor Jack Markell at Computer Aid, Inc. in Newark.  CAI is teaming up with Specialisterne in Denmark to increase employment opportunities for workers diagnosed with autism. 

Thorkil Sonne founded Specialisterne, which translates from Danish as “The Specialists,” after his son Lars was diagnosed with autism. He saw a map his son drew with incredible details and realized that those with high-functioning autism have special skills that they can use to excel in the IT field. “I actually came up with a challenge to society. Maybe it’s not my son that is the problem,” Sonne said. “Maybe it’s that our societies that are getting too rigid on everyone having to fit into one form.”

So even though his son and others like him may not have the social skills of other workers, they still can contribute valuable work for companies like CAI. To help cultivate those skills and find opportunities for those with autism, Specialisterne is opening its U.S. headquarters in Delaware as part of a partnership with CAI.

CAI has pledged to increase its efforts to hire autistic workers, and has pledged that by the end of 2015, three percent of its 800 workers in the region and 3,300 nationwide will be people with autism. Managing Director Ernie Dianastasis says the company hopes to tap into an underutilized labor pool. “By building a partnership with Specialisterne, our combined strengths will ensure these folks can be properly screened, on-boarded, trained and mentored in a nurturing environment where they can be productive and successful professionals.”

Depending on where they fall on the autism spectrum, workers will be able to work in IT positions including scanning and indexing documents on computers, data entry, software testing, and even programming. “These individuals are in most cases strong performers in these jobs if placed in the right environment,” said Dianastasis. “[This partnership] creates the model and environment that will enable them to leverage their strengths.”

“This is not about charity,” said Governor Markell. “This is not about the philanthropic arm of CAI making a donation to a not-for-profit group.” Markell says when it comes to finding talented workers, “The focus needs to be on the ability and not the disability.” 

Markell, who has led the charge on improving opportunities for disabled workers as leader of the National Governor’s Association, says the nation needs to improve the way people with disabilities are integrated into the workforce. “Too often these businesses are asked, ‘Can you please find a job for this person.’ Well, we’ve got to change the mindset.” Markell says state leaders need to recognize that they must be problem solvers for businesses, rather than trying to get companies to find jobs that workers with disabilities can do. “It’s somewhat of a cultural mind-set shift.”

The NGA is expected to issue a blueprint for getting people with disabilities into the workforce in August.

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