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?


Katja Worm said...

Hi Again,

I'm sory, if I marked myself as anonymous.
Here is my e-mail, if you want to drop me a line some time:

PS: I was telling you the truth about Specialisterne. It's nothing but a scam.

jonathan said...

Thanks Katja I might email you for more info sometime. I was very interested to read what you said about Specialisterne since I've had my suspicions about them. I decided to devote a blog post to your comment. If Specialisterne is indeed a scam, it's a shame the media has glorified this program and made so much of it.

Katja Worm said...

Dear Jonathan,

Thanx for your reply. Believe me, I've had my suspicions as well, when I worked there. Cos it wasn't like the media had described it to be. The media had indeed glorified this Company. And they had pictured the CEO as a fucking hero. Which he wasn't.

I also think that the most scary part is that it's so easy to do scams like that in Denmark. No, it's way too easy.

Anonymous said... complains that Specialisterne doesn't both hire autistics without holding them to the same interview standards and hire autistics to do HR work like interviewing people.

Unknown said...

Specialisterne may have done things wrong, but what components do you think were/are missing?

Social skills development was mentioned, but what other things could have made it the real deal?

What would we need in place for a work environment to be ideal for people with ASD?

jonathan said...

Cecily I don't believe there is really anything that can make the workplace ideal or even better, except for providing adequate lighting for light sensitive people or things like that there are no easy answers.

As far as Specialisterne is concerned I can't really comment on that as I never worked for them. Perhaps Katja will read this and answer. Of course, you may have been asking her and not me.

Anonymous said...

Hello author, are you still active here?

jonathan said...

Yes, I'm still active here.

Aeolienne said...

Specialisterne opened a UK office in 2010, in Glasgow, but it folded after two years.
I wrote a piece for Asperger United about my experience of the application process which was published in their April 2012 issue: (page 14)
Bizarrely, I have also found a French translation of my piece (not by me!) here:
Est-ce que Specialisterne est aussi bien qu’on le dit?

Later on Specialisterne relaunched in the UK, this time in London as "Specialists UK" and acting more as a recruitment consultancy than as a software company. They were involved in the first series of Employable Me, as I was
( ). After they got me the job at National Grid, I was featured on their website as a success story. Unfortunately my success was short-lived, as was Specialists UK; they folded just when I was informed that my contract would not be renewed after a year.

Unknown said...

I witnessed an episode in which an NGO published a job offer and finally all jobs were obtained exclusively by partners with questionable diagnoses (their own psychiatrists had doubts they really were on the spectrum). Rest of participants (mainly non partners) were refused with uncredible arguments (like a supposed poor foreigner language without any kind of testing of this skill).

It is true that Specialisterne declared they accept people on the broad spectrum or with similar conditions like ADHD, but all this extremely high functioning people were promoted by the NGO as full blown autistics who can job, when they hardly qualify even for asperger's diagnosis.

I hate neurodiversity movement. They only bring more exclusion for truly affected.

Anonymous said...

Too many questions to apply. IMO They are gathering/selling psychological data. I doubt they are held to the same to the same privacy standards as a medical professionals.

Anonymous said...

Maybe it's an experiment