In a rapidly evolving business landscape, diversity and inclusion have risen to the forefront of corporate agendas. Yet while strides have been made to foster gender, cultural and racial diversity, another facet of inclusivity remains relatively unexplored: creating a workplace that welcomes neurodiverse talent, particularly individuals on the autism spectrum.
Thorkil Sonne, Founder of the Specialisterne Foundation, is pioneering a paradigm shift, challenging businesses to embrace the untapped potential of a truly diverse workforce. He is also a Fellow of Ashoka, the largest network of social entrepreneurs worldwide, with more than 3,800 leading innovators in more than 95 countries.
A personal journey that ignited a vision
Sonne’s journey to founding the Specialisterne Foundation began with a deeply personal experience. When his youngest son was diagnosed with infantile autism, Sonne’s world shifted. He realized that traditional societal structures, particularly in education and employment, were ill-equipped to accommodate those with neurodivergent minds.
Recognizing the immense value in harnessing the unique talents of individuals on the autism spectrum, he embarked on a mission to prove that people with autism could thrive in the corporate world, if given the right environment.
“I think they should change the lens and say, ‘we do it because it makes sense from a business perspective’.”
“We are not used to people who are not alike. We sort them out and put them on special arrangements, special tracks, or they’re just forgotten and hidden somewhere inactive,” Sonne tells The CEO Magazine.
His vision crystallized into the Specialisterne Foundation in 2004, which seeks to create environments where individuals can be themselves, leverage their strengths and contribute to the professional landscape.
This has not happened without challenges. Sonne identifies the prevailing misconceptions about the capabilities of autistic individuals in the workplace as one of the most significant challenges individuals on the autistic spectrum face.
Companies often view hiring individuals on the spectrum as a charitable endeavor, rather than recognizing the tangible business benefits that neurodiverse talent can bring.
“I think they should change the lens and say, ‘we do it because it makes sense from a business perspective’,” Sonne emphasizes.
Co-created by Ashoka and IKEA Social Entrepreneurship, the Dela Programme offers a space for social entrepreneurs to scale socially-driven initiatives. This year, Sonne joined the accelerator to design and test a strong systems-change strategy that enables systemic inclusion for neurodivergent persons.
Why businesses need to become more inclusive
As companies navigate the complexities of the modern market, embracing neurodiversity emerges as a strategic imperative. The ripple effect of integrating neurodivergent individuals into the workforce goes far beyond a mere checkbox for diversity initiatives. Sonne’s insights shed light on the multifaceted benefits that businesses can reap.
Resilience and precision
Many neurodivergent individuals possess qualities such as persistence, resilience and an exceptional attention to detail. These attributes can lead to consistent, high-quality work and an unyielding commitment to task completion.
“Some are very good at repeating what they did yesterday. A lot do the same thing without losing attention or precision, while others may get tired of doing a certain thing after a few hours,” Sonne points out. “It’s important to say that it’s not true for all autistic people, but some are so smart that when they learn how to do things, they may want to learn how to do other things. If things can be done better, they like to find that solution.”
Innovation and problem-solving
The unique cognitive profiles of neurodivergent individuals bring fresh perspectives to the table. Their different ways of thinking can lead to innovative solutions and creative problem-solving.
“You have to have people with different perspectives, different ways of thinking,” Sonne explains. “We are not in the industrial phase where everyone has to be able to produce the same. Now it’s a problem if everything is the same all the time.”
Enhanced workplace dynamics
Neurodivergent employees contribute to a positive work atmosphere, fostering higher engagement and better team cohesion.
“The coworkers get more engaged,” Sonne explains. “There’s more joy of work, higher retention and a more positive work atmosphere – because people are proud of having a dimension in the work that is not just about meeting your scorecard and raising the profit for the shareholders. It’s also something that you can go back to family dinners and talk about. It touches people.”
Welcoming neurodivergent employees requires managers to refine their leadership styles. This often translates into improved communication, better clarity and development of more respectful and attentive managerial skills.
“Managers become better managers,” Sonne says. “They become more respectful, have more attention and communicate in a clearer way. They learn to create an environment that accommodates diverse needs, ultimately leading to a more inclusive workplace.”
Steps businesses can take to become more inclusive
Beyond recognizing the benefits, companies must actively adopt strategies that empower individuals on the spectrum to excel. Sonne’s insights guide the path toward building a more inclusive future by keeping a few things in mind.
Creating tailored support systems
The cornerstone of inclusivity lies in developing support systems that bridge the gap between the unique strengths of neurodivergent individuals and the demands of their roles.
“Create a comfort zone, make them play and watch what they’re doing while they think they are playing,” Sonne suggests. “Because then, you can see what they’re good at, instead of asking them what they’re good at.”
Setting clear expectations
Providing clear expectations and guidance is paramount for a friendly environment. Clarity in communication ensures that employees understand their roles and responsibilities.
“Say what you mean, mean what you say,” Sonne emphasizes. “If there’s a need for guidance, the individual should know how to get it if the direct manager is not available. The worst thing for an autistic person is not knowing what to do now.”
Giving training and raising awareness
Raising awareness about neurodiversity among employees is crucial. Training programs can help co-workers and managers understand the challenges faced by individuals with autism and provide them with the tools to offer effective support.
“Many have been told that they would never be able to work in teams because they have autism. But autistic people can work in teams… if we can explain how it works,” Sonne says.
Prioritizing managerial adaptability
Managers play a pivotal role in creating an inclusive environment. They must be receptive to individual needs and adjust their management styles accordingly.
“To make autistic people thrive, you have to be a good manager. Avoid using irony or sarcasm. If you do, explain that what you said yesterday was sarcasm and what you said today is actually what you mean,” Sonne explains.
“Make room for people who may not feel comfortable with loud music during celebrations. Know that there also needs to be a quiet corner.”