Work done by disabled people, while providing a “social good,” is sometimes price discounted, to reflect the likelihood of problems or additional overhead and expense. Sometimes the organizations in which such people work operate as charities or nonprofits. Sonne didn’t want to go these routes. He made instead a for-profit company that offered a best-in-class service. He intended to pay industry-competitive wages and to train his employees to become the world’s greatest software testers. Such a firm, he thought, could sustain itself and would genuinely benefit his special consultants; he would pay them to provide real value, not condescend to them with a handout. In effect, Sonne reconceived the current ideas about disabled workers: instead of cramming them into conventional work situations, he made new workspaces, spaces that not only accommodated their special needs but set free (exploited, even) their special skills.
It was at first far from obvious that this could succeed. Autism can cause substantial impairment for those afflicted, notably in their ability to interact and communicate in social settings, and in social imagination. People with autism may appear aloof and indifferent; they often don’t fully understand the meaning of common gestures, facial expressions, tones of voice, or irony. In the United Kingdom, for one example, only 15 percent of adults with autism hold full-time jobs.
Sonne aspired to move more people with autism into the “employed” category, to leverage their special abilities while he made a system in which their impairments could become strengths. On the basis of his research, he hypothesized that social interaction difficulties likely prevented many high-functioning [autistic] people from acquiring and holding jobs. He believed he could overcome such difficulties in high-functioning autistic people. He designed support services to teach workers the job, invented work methods they could master, and designed social training to help them develop ways to interact with employers and colleagues. He made, in other words, places in which special people could work at peak levels of performance; produce genuine value; and, as a result, live productive, satisfying lives. And now, a few years later, it’s become apparent that he was right.
How did he do it? The details are these: Specialisterne operational plans include a high level of support and careful handling for its special consultants. The company maintains an on-call response staff, people who can resolve issues that client companies don’t know how to address. This support staff helps set up work situations that insulate consultants from the hectic, sometimes chaotic environment of the client and help to maintain the quiet, orderly work environment they need. Many can’t work full time. Each presents a complex of particular mental conditions and a personal constellation of life difficulties. These all require special arrangements in the division of labor and the structure of each job. Sonne must include clients in the design process, persuade them to help make some unusual arrangements. Those who do usually find that it’s worth it: the effort produces an impressive return. In other words, Sonne reconceived the idea of a software testing company, and made a new one. He’s a poster child for the concept of manager as maker: he made workplaces, each one unique, where special things can be done. He conceived and made a business in which doing what comes naturally leads naturally to the desired outcome.
One of our colleagues, a senior business school professor who serves on the boards of directors for several large international firms, upon hearing the story of Specialisterne immediately raised an issue: “The thing that is hard to sort out is how much [additional] cost is being incurred by a customer to use these resources?”