S is for The Specialist People Foundation: The Strengths Of Autism

Thorkil Sonne was elected as an Ashoka Fellow in 2009. Here is the citation that was published at the time.


Thorkil changes the way society perceives autism by transforming it from a handicap to a competitive advantage.

His Specialist People Foundation employs autistic people, who have a ten times lower fault rate in software testing and other tasks.

Thorkil now plans to go beyond Denmark, empowering people with ASD globally.

Below are excerpts from The Specialist People Foundation website. You can discover more via the following link.


The Specialists

Thorkil’s Story

 The Idea for Specialisterne and Specialist
People Foundation Started with Lars

My son Lars was 2½ years old when my wife and I noticed that his development began to differ from that of his older brothers.

We arranged with his nursery carers that he would get extra support from a qualified child psychologist, all the while hoping of course that we could learn how best to help him become more like his brothers.

Our Lives Changed

Eventually, we were informed that Lars had infantile autism – a life-long invisible handicap in the category of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Lars would face a life where he would be constantly misunderstood and isolated because it would be difficult for him to interpret what others expected of him.

Most likely, Lars would never have a normal working life.

My Fight

I became active in the Danish Autism Association. I also studied the Danish welfare model, and realized that although the model is strong and has many good aspects, there was a lot of room for improvement.

I learned that families with a child with ASD have a high risk of disintegration.

This is most often because this handicap is invisible, meaning that the family has to struggle to get the outside world to understand and provide timely support.

Social workers also work under difficult conditions where welfare schemes are available, but the knowledge of how best to help people with complicated invisible handicaps is thin on the ground.

I experienced that both those who need the help and those who provide help are under great and increasing strain.


With the support of my family I re-mortgaged our home and established Specialisterne (The Specialists) in an attempt to tailor a working environment geared towards people with ASD, enabling them to use their specialist skills to act as consultants to the business sector, at market terms.

My vision is to create new possibilities for people with ASD and to influence society to adopt a more positive attitude towards people with ASD.

One Million Jobs

It is believed that one percent of the world’s population may have Autism Spectrum Disorder. This is equivalent to 68 million people worldwide.

Even more people may have other disorders on the autism spectrum, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD). These are all potential specialist people – with great business potential.

We have set our goal: to provide meaningful and productive jobs for one million people with autism and other invisible disorders.

Our strategy is to:

Replicate Specialisterne operations around the world to showcase and demonstrate the skills and contribution of specialist people.

Assess and train specialist people for an active role in the labor market.

Assess the markets in which specialist people can perform valuable tasks.

Develop and share a management model (The Dandelion Model) that will enable companies and workplaces to hire and manage specialist people.

Increase awareness in society of the positive contributions of specialist people.


The Dandelion Seed

Our logo is the dandelion seed.

To most people, the dandelion is seen as nothing more than an annoying weed – something to be rooted out of our lawns and flower beds.

But what a lot of people don’t know is that, when cultivated, the dandelion is one of the most valuable and useful plants in nature, known for its healing and medicinal properties. 

The value of the dandelion is very much dependent on the knowledge of the individual.

Most of us don’t want it in our gardens – it doesn’t fit in. But if you place the dandelion seeds in your kitchen garden and cultivate it, it can also turn out to be one of your most valuable plants, used in beer and wine making, salads and as a natural medicine.

Quite simply, cultivate it and you will reap the rewards.

Weed or herb? You decide. The value of what you see depends on who you are.

We see a clear parallel between the perception of the dandelion in nature and society’s perception of people with autism – or “specialist people” – in the workforce.

At Specialist People Foundation and the Specialisterne licensees around the world, we see the value in people with autism, where others do not.

The blue square around the dandelion represents the open sky of opportunities, with a rounded corner to illustrate that even though we are in a tough market, we tailor the environment to fit the individual – visualized in the rounded corner.

The I letters in SPECIALIST have the yellow color of the mature dandelion flower to underline the link between the logo and the name of the foundation.

The tagline Enabling One Million Jobs states our ambitious goal, which will be the focus of all our activities.


The Dandelion Model

The Dandelion Model is the name we give our ethos in Specialist People Foundation, and the Specialisterne licensees around the world.

It encapsulates the overriding set of management principles embodying the values of Specialist People Foundation, and codifies the Specialisterne materials made available to new licensees. 

The Dandelion Management Model enables our stakeholders to learn from our experiences in managing high-functioning people with autism.

It is a model that focuses on how best to make people with autism feel wanted in the workforce and how to create the right environment in which they can excel.

There are four main areas of the model:

The Dandelion Philosophy.

How we define and understand “specialist people.”

How best to meet individual requirements in order to build a comfort zone for the individual.

How to define what tasks and job profiles are best suited to the individual


The Corporate Sector can:

Harness the full potential of their employees.

Recruit from a pool of talented and innovative resources.

Better manage employees who don’t fit in or who are not realising their full potential.

Add new dimensions to company research and innovation with people with autism.

The Public Sector, Social Workers and Local Municipalities can:

Work with a model that helps them understand and support people with autism in a new and better way.

Be better at including people with autism in the labor market.

Get a thorough real-life assessment for clients in an assessment programme where the setting in a real company (Specialisterne) with real assignments.

Gain an economic and social return on investment with clients who either gain real employment or who are better equipped to independently pursue job opportunities.

Help make a social impact by supporting a model that helps people with autism make the transition from passive receivers to active contributors.

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