After working at the CERN research center near Geneva for a decade, where he was part of efforts to understand the origins of the universe, 49-year-old physicist Niels Kjaer returned home to his native Copenhagen. There were no newspaper job listings for people with Ph.D.s in particle physics, and he had no contacts at local universities. Since Kjaer has difficulty interacting with others, he decided to take a job driving a taxi in Copenhagen. "Okay, fine," he told himself, "I'll just work the night shift." Within six months, he was suffering from depression.
After Thorkil Sonne, the technical director of the Danish communications company TDC, had heard one too many times about how poorly his young son was fitting in at kindergarten, he and his wife went to a psychologist for advice. Instead of tips on how to raise their child, they received a diagnosis. Their son had Asperger's syndrome, the psychologist said, a form of autism. Sonne and his wife were told that people with Asperger's usually have no problems concentrating and had very good memories, but that they have trouble when it comes to matters of the heart, making it difficult for them to laugh at funny things or comfort those who are sad. This inability to relate to others, the psychologist said, makes children with Asperger's syndrome outsiders.
After hearing words like autism and outsider, the father was flabbergasted. There wasn't much that could be done, the psychologist said.
Recognizing Oft-Hidden Talents
Today, Niels Kjaer, the particle physicist, no longer drives a taxi. And that has something to do with the fact that Thorkil Sonne didn't take the psychologist's advice. Instead, he decided that something could be done for people with Asperger's, after all.
In 2004, Sonne established a company in Copenhagen called Specialisterne, or "the Specialists." The company hires autistic people like Kjaer and places them in projects, primarily with IT companies, where they analyze software, manage data and write programs.
Sonne says that he didn't start the company for charitable reasons. He wants the work performed by his employees to matter, and he wants their talents to be recognized -- talents that are hard to convey in formal job interviews.
Sonne ensures that his employees are paid standard industry wages. His long-term goal is to create a million jobs worldwide for people with Asperger's and similar autistic disorders. Specialisterne already has offices in Iceland, Scotland and Switzerland, and it plans to open an office in Germany this year.
What Asperger's Means
Matthias Prössl walks into a café in Munich, having come straight from a job center, where an adviser explained to him how entrepreneurs can take advantage of government subsidies and grants. Prössl wants to bring Sonne's concept from Denmark to Germany. The 51-year-old once worked as an executive at IBM. His eldest son was diagnosed with Asperger's six years ago. Since then, Prössl's world has no longer revolved around his career.
An estimated one in 3,000 children has Asperger's syndrome, which affects more boys than girls. It is still unclear where the disorder comes from, although experts believe that it is caused by a combination of genetic factors, brain damage and biochemical changes. In contrast to other autistic individuals, intelligence and language ability develop normally in children with Asperger's. In fact, many start talking earlier than other children, sometimes even before they learn to walk. They quickly develop a favorite subject and sink into their own worlds, poring over maps, telephone books and train schedules. Later on, their interests turn to periodic tables, programming languages or, as in the case of Niels Kjaer, the formulas of high-energy physics.
Still, they have difficulty correctly interpreting social situations and are unable to properly assess the facial expressions, gestures and emotional states of other people. They often avoid direct eye contact. According to the textbook definition, they are characterized by a "lack of social and emotional reciprocity."
Asperger's cannot be cured, though treatment can help people with the condition to cope with the world somewhat more effectively. People with Asperger's or autism cannot empathize with the emotions of other people, but they can learn that a loud voice or a wrinkled brow signify anger and annoyance.
Irony, puns and metaphors are usually lost on people with Asperger's syndrome because they interpret them literally. The sentence "my head is about to explode" can send them into a panic.
People who take everything literally have trouble lying, and most people with Asperger's are brutally honest. When asked in an interview "What are your weaknesses?" they tend to respond with complete honesty. Indeed, they lack the ability to portray themselves in an advantageous light. As a result, some manage to complete university degrees in difficult subjects, only to fail miserably once they hit the job market.
Difficulties in School
Prössl's son is now 15. Since he suffers from a milder form of Asperger's, he attends a normal secondary school. When he started attending his current school, the Prössls told a few teachers about his condition so as to avoid misunderstandings when it became clear that their son had trouble interacting with others.
Many people with Asperger's attend special schools. "It isn't because they can't keep up intellectually," says Friedrich Nolte of the German Autism Society, "but because the groups are smaller there." In normal schools, social pressures are often too much for children with Asperger's. They end up being teased and bullied, leading many to eventually become depressed. "I don't want my son to be sent to occupational therapy instead of learning what he can do and what he enjoys," Prössl says. But what's the best way to give these children a good education and help them embark on a career?
Harnessing Special Abilities
Specialisterne's main office is in an industrial zone west of Copenhagen. The walls and doors are decorated with film posters and humorous postcards. A Rubik's Cube solved by one of the employees sits on a desk.
After his son was diagnosed with Asperger's, Sonne says he became active in the Danish Autism Association, where he and his wife gradually got to know other children with the condition. He met adolescents who were clever and competent yet failing in school. "These are the boys who answer the teacher's questions instead of fooling around with the kids sitting next to them," Sonne says. "Now that shouldn't be a reason to have to attend a school for children with special needs, should it?"
Sonne knew from personal experience how difficult it can be to find employees who are detail-oriented, persistent and precise -- just the skills he was observing in young men with Asperger's. And yet not one of them was able to apply his talents.
"I wanted to take advantage of the characteristics that autistic people have, not just for their sake, but also to benefit the economy," Sonne says. He founded the company in 2004 using money from a home equity loan. Specialisterne now has 33 employees.
Sonne has already won several international awards in recognition of his commitment. He receives inquiries from parents and people with Asperger's syndrome from around the world. All of this support has encouraged him to implement his concept in other countries.
Obvious Assets to Employers
When asked why an employer should hire an autistic person in the first place, Sonne says that their assets are obvious. "People with Asperger's can concentrate better. They are more precise," he says. These abilities, he adds, are an advantage in such fields as data control. "Other testers lose interest after the third attempt, and then errors start to creep in. My people are still wide awake after the 10th attempt."
They just need a little help with other things, he says. People with Asperger's have no sense of nuance, and yet they are often perfectionists. When they think something doesn't make sense, they usually criticize it directly. Since this approach can create friction in a working environment, Sonne's employees also receive training in office etiquette. They are taught skills such as how to exchange pleasantries with coworkers and how to phrase criticism diplomatically. With a little consideration, Sonne says, everyone gets along.
In Denmark, Specialisterne employees are now managing projects at Siemens, Nokia and TDC. When asked why so much involvement with computers and what makes people with autism so passionate about data and order, Sonne says: "They like to adhere to fixed rules and routines (and) computers are very reliable counterparts." What's more, computer language is logically structured and, in most cases, computers remain the same way they were when they were used last.
Besides, Sonne says, the people one encounters on the Internet are more predictable than people in real life. On the Web, most people write what they mean using clear and unmistakable terms. Reading between the lines is rarely necessary, and most people identify irony with a smiley face.
Finding a Suitable Niche
Niels Kjaer is sitting in an office at Specialisterne, working on a computer program designed to help improve quality-control checks on chicken eggs. The goal is to detect cracks in eggs with a scanning camera. Kjaer shows images of eggs that are blotchy, dented or cracked. He looks for the imperfect ones, which he wants to help filter out.
Kjaer has come a long way, from CERN to driving a taxi to finally programming. When asked if he is happy, Kjaer doesn't avert his gaze from the screen and answers that there is still a lot to be improved about the program. "Up here on the left," Kjaer says, pointing to an egg, "it should be possible to detect these hairline cracks soon."
Of course, he didn't answer the question. But perhaps it's just that he understood it in a completely different way.