Saturday, February 21, 2015
Is Specialisterne for real?
Thorne Sorkil’s organization, Specialisterne (meaning specialist in Danish) trains and employs individuals to be computer software testers. What is unique about the employees is that they are mostly persons on the autism spectrum. Sorkil, a former IT worker in Denmark, has an autistic son who I think is now about eighteen. He found that his son could draw maps with great detail. He also had calendar savant skills. Sorkil met a number of individuals on the autism spectrum through various support groups who all related the stories of being unable to find and/or hold down a job. Studies, such as Michelle Dawson’s, had suggested that the intelligence of persons with autism had been underestimated and they had good fluid intelligence. Also autistics were believed to have good attention to details (as Thorkil’s son did). A study by Patricia Howlin had showed that as many as 30% of autistics have specialized skills and talents. This was a higher estimate than Bernard Rimland’s survey showing merely 10% of autistics have savant skills of some sort. This inspired him to start Specialisterne where persons on the autism spectrum do IT work.
The concept really hit home for me. As most regular readers of my blog know, during the approximately twenty-eight years I was in the workforce I had tremendous problems at jobs. These included conflicts with employees and supervisors and often not being able to do the work without errors. An organization that can effectively employ autistic people and provide them with a good income was something that interested me.
His organization has received widespread media attention from the new york times as well as Forbes magazine . Is this organization the salvation for unemployed autistic people or could it be not all the media has cracked it up to be?
One of the media’s talking points in their stories of this organization was that autistics not only had good attention to details but had superior accuracy. I know this was not true for myself. This made me skeptical of Specialisterne’s legitimacy and whether or not they were really helpful to persons on the spectrum.
Other dubious assertions were using Michelle Dawson’s research to show that autistic people could effectively work as software testers. The control group in her study was not neurotypical, but had average Wechsler IQ’s of 70th percentile. A group in the 70th percentile is not typical of anything. No other researcher had replicated the magnitude of the differences in autistics between the Wechsler test and RPM’s her study found. Sven Boelte found a difference between RPM and Wechsler but it was not of the magnitude of Dawson’s and was only limited to lower functioning autistics and not persons with higher functioning autism and asperger’s who are whom Specialisterne employs. Kim Bodner also failed to find an effect for high functioning autistics. The attention to details, as measured by embedded figures test seemed to be debunked by psychologist Sarah White, particularly for higher functioning persons. Darold Treffert wrote in Islands of Genius that Howlin’s 30 percent figure was likely a very liberal definition of savantism and an overestimate.
The biggest eyeroll of all was reading that Specialisterne was largely subsidized by the socialist government of Denmark. When he set up shop in the u.s.a. in the state of Delaware, he received grants of $800,000.
All of these made me question whether or not these were real jobs and they were geniunely helping those with autism.
This is why I was interested when a couple of days ago I received a comment to a a post I wrote over two and a half years ago where I discussed these very issues. From a woman named Katja Worm who said she was from Denmark and had been a former employee of specialisterne said:
Hello, my name is Katja Worm. I'm an 35 year old woman and a former employee at Specialisterne in Denmark.
I just wanna say you're right about everything you wrote in your blog. I share your opinion. I really do.
You can't run a business by using this method. And you can't demand an amount in that size, and just believe that the government and the social services will pay it. It's not gonna Work in a long run. You have to make Money by yourself from selling a product or something like that. And they're not doing something like that at Specialisterne. They have some contact with other Companies, but the Company is staying in business by getting Money from the government. It's not okay. It's a scam.
During that same time, I was working there, it didn't seem like anyone got a real job.
All we were doing was sitting and playing with a cell phone and talk to a psychologist. It doesn't have anything to do with creating a career in the business World. The employees were not affective at all. They were only doing one assigntment which took them all day to finish.
The employees didn't get any professional training in social skills either. They were allowed to show their autistic behaviour in public by sitting and do rocking and spinning movements with their body, which is a classical sign of autism. If they're showing this strange behaviour at a Work place, it's no Wonder, if they can't keep a job.
Ms. Worm didn’t leave a link of any kind. She just posted as anonymous. I have no way of verifying if her claims are real but it is food for thought. Is Thorne Sorkil an emperor with no clothes?