One year after coming to Delaware, an international program that aims to find tech jobs for individuals with autism is seeing its first successes.

The program is called "Specialisterne," which means "The Specialists," and comes to Delaware from Denmark. The goal is to hone in on the special skills and talents of people on the autism spectrum -- and use them in the tech and data industry.

 

A few small robots are zipping around the open office space of CAI in Newark. A group of young men sends the robots on different missions -- tracing letters, riding up toward walls and stopping. CAI, an IT company, is the corporate partner for Specialisterne, and the young robot-builders are trainees working toward employment in the tech and data industry. They all have autism, and the goal of the training is to match their interests and special skill sets with jobs.

The Specialisterne logo is a dandelion -- a flower the program's founder, Thorkil Sonne, says children love and love to play with. But adults see the dandelion differently.

"When you buy a house with a garden and you see this wonderful flower again, what do you see?" said Sonne. "You see a weed, probably, because now your norms are different, the plant is the same, but is it a weed or is it an herb?"

Sonne's youngest son, Lars, has autism, and Sonne chose the dandelion as the logo because he wants society and employers to look at people with autism as an asset -- to see ability, rather than disability.

"There are a lot of skill sets, but they are unused, because they are limited by some barriers in mostly social expectations," he said.

Skill set meshes well with IT needs

The Specialisterne Foundation came to Delaware at the invitation of Gov. Jack Markell and then teamed up with CAI. Sonne says the trainees might struggle with social skills, but very often they have good memory, ability to see patterns and pride in what they do.

"They are very good at working with detail, they have a structured mind, many are also very good at repetitive tasks," he said.

"Things like software testing require exactly those things -- accuracy, focus, reliability, as well as being excited to do that kind of work -- are all skills that are an advantage in the IT and tech industry," said Ernest Dianastasis, CAI managing director.

The training teaches job skills and workplace readiness skills. The first group of trainees who participated in the Specalisterne program are now already working on a CAI project for the state of Delaware, Dianastasis said.

"They are sorting, scanning, indexing and then shredding documents that have been backlogged that the state has very much wanted to digitize and get into their system," he said.

So far, he says, the project is going very well.

The individuals with autism are working well with their typical peers and the CAI employees are quickly adjusting to the special needs of their new co-workers, Sonne said.

"Don't use sarcasm or irony, say what you mean, and mean what you say, it makes life easier," he advises them.

World opens up to one new worker

Brett Reilly, 19, is on the autism spectrum, and was part of the first group of trainees. Now in the first group of employees, Reilly says he enjoyed the training course, and the job is not difficult.

"The scanning, I can do it really quickly, get through a lot of folders, I can get a lot of work done," he said.

His mother, Gwen Griffith of Wilmington, says the program and subsequent employment have been godsends for her son, who did not do well in several subjects in school.

Now she can finally see a career path for her son, who has always struggled socially.

"Math and science, he is brilliant," she said. "But I couldn't see him interviewing, and being the one who knocked it out of the park."

Since he started the program and then his new job, Griffith says she has noticed big changes in her son. He is more talkative, started driving himself to work, and even goes on outings.

"He just needed something to boost his confidence," said Griffith.