Before Alex Lee started working for Appareo Systems, he was a cart attendant at Target part-time on weekends. He knew it wasn’t a career path, but as someone with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), it was hard for him to hold down other jobs. Until he found Specialisterne.

Specialisterne is a non-profit IT consultancy firm that trains those diagnosed with autism to become professional IT consultants, by developing their natural ability to focus and pay attention to detail.Specialisterne

The company was founded ten years ago in Denmark (the name means “the specialists” in Danish) by the father of boy diagnosed with ASD. Now, thanks to funding from the Anne Carlsen Center, Specialisterne has recently established their first ever self-standing office in the United States – right here in Fargo, ND.

What’s more, they have just announced their first partnerships with Appareo Systems and Myriad Mobile.

Thorkil Sonne and Tony Thomann

Thorkil Sonne, founder of Specialisterne (left) Thomann, (right)

Tony Thomann, Executive Director for the Midwest Region of Specialisterne (which includes Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin), explained how these partnerships are revolutionary for both companies involved. Not only does it skip the hassle of finding new employees, which can take months, but it provides companies with excellent workers – workers who, often enough, have never been recognized for their merits in the workplace, he said.

“We’re valuing them in the same way in the labor market that we would want to be valued,” he said. “I get hired for my merit, not because somebody’s doing me a favor as a bald man. Individuals on the autism spectrum want the same thing.”

At Myriad and Appareo, the merits of the new specialists are certainly being appreciated as a necessary and helpful component to the team.

This need was illuminated for Myriad when Specialisterne’s specialists ran an unofficial test on their applications this October, and came forward with a handful of errors they could fix. Now, four specialists work full-time testing the software, making sure it is void of any glitches before it is released.

“Talking to the engineers and the project managers, they’re so thrilled that we have a QA (quality assurance) on now,” said Camille Grade, Marketing and Communications manager for Myriad Mobile. “We couldn’t imagine a better partnership.”

For Appareo, the partnership came right as they were looking for someone with attention to detail and manual skills, said April Steffan, Marketing Manager. When Specialisterne introduced them to Alex, who had proved himself to be skilled at detail work with his hands during the assessment process, he was a perfect fit for the assembler position.

“It’s been very seamless,” Steffan said. “Most of the Appareo employees aren’t even aware of the program. Alex just seems like another part of the Appareo team.”

Alex Lee at Appareo

Alex Lee working at Appareo Systems.

Appareo, she added, is “honored to be the first company in Fargo to put one of their specialists to work.”

These partnerships put Fargo at the forefront of Specialisterne’s goal to change the labor paradigm around the world. Although there are two other functioning offices in the United States – one in Delaware, one in New York – the Fargo office is the first in the midwest, the only one involved with the mobile community, and the first self standing, software testing, fully consultant based model in the country, Thomann said. It joins other active Specialisterne offices in Denmark, India, Ireland, and around the globe.

Why Fargo, you ask? Three reasons, said Thomann: the emerging tech community, extremely low unemployment, and a willingness to consider the idea. Fargo needs workers, and Specialisterne provides workers, he said. More-so, Fargo is more open than other cities to finding employees through Specialisterne.

“I think the Twin Cities area is more of a ‘wait-and-see,’ and Fargo is more of a ‘yeah let’s do it, let’s make it happen,’” he said.

JP McBride

JP McBride tests apps at Myriad Mobile

Appareo and Myriad Mobile are the first ‘yeah-let’s-do-it’ companies to partner with Specialisterne, but Thomann hopes to see many more emerge from this type of Fargo energy. It is certainly something that is needed for the ever-growing number of those with autism, he said.

Right now that number stands at 3.5 million in the United States alone currently living with autism, according to the Autism Society.

A whopping 35 percent of those young adults with autism have not had a job or received postgraduate education after leaving high school.

But the real kicker is that recent studies have shown the intelligence of those with autism to have been grossly underestimated. On the Raven’s Progressive Matrices, a respected I.Q. test, the majority of children with autism scored at or above the middle range — and a third exhibited high intelligence. Scientists at King’s College London, through studies done in 2009, concluded that about a third of autistic males have “some form of outstanding ability.”

This is why Thomann calls the ever growing number of autistic individuals, “a community of people that are very gifted but massively under served.”

“Individuals on the autism spectrum want to engage in the labor market,” Thomann said. “They just need somebody to help keep translating.”

The translating factor is what Specialisterne aims to do. The process, however, is a bit lengthy. They begin by recruiting a group of people, and then assessing the skill levels through a Lego Hangout – where recruits are given a specially designed Lego set and are observed to see how well they build and follow directions. This is followed by an hour long interview and a software testing component, “where the intellectual capacity really shines,” Thomann said. After that, they narrow it to the people who are quick to notice functional errors. Through partnerships like that with Appareo and Myriad, those specialists are then employed, while Specialisterne serves as the go-to for the specialists and the company, should any problem ever occur. The process, Thomann said, usually takes months.

But the results are life-changing.

John-Paul “JP” McBride is one of five specialists currently employed through Specialisterne in Fargo. He works doing software testing for Myriad, and said he has been, “very impressed with how welcoming Myriad has been to us.”

“Personally, I’ve been on SSI (supplemental security income) disability for several years now, and I’m simply thrilled at the prospect of having an actual career,” he said.


McBride (left) and Zach Zaborny (right) working at Myriad Mobile.

David Strand is another specialist currently testing software at Myriad, a position he said “fits perfectly with my personality, quirks and all.” He described how the training from Specialisterne not only enabled him to develop his skills through a learning style that suits him, but it also built up his own self-confidence.

Every morning, he said, he wakes up happy to go to work, knowing that his work is meaningful and that his skills add value to the greater whole.

Alex Lee Appareo

Alex Lee working at Appareo Systems

“Everybody likes to have a purpose,” he said. “Mine is to test mobile apps. That’s my place in the world now, and it feels so good just to be a part of something.”

Seeing the fulfillment of these specialists in their new jobs shows Thomann a promising start for the development of Specialisterne both here and around the country (and the world!).

Like many who work with the company, Thomann has a personal connection – two young boys of his own that have been diagnosed with ASD. He became involved with Specialisterne for their sake, and for the sake of all the 1 in 68 children born with ASD each year– with the hope that Specialisterne can begin to disintegrate the stigmas associated with those who have autism, and open them up to opportunities in the work world. No more stories of brilliant people with autism unable to get a job, even with a Master’s degree under their belt (a true story, Thomann said). No more stories like that of Alex, David and JP feeling stuck in a mundane job that doesn’t tap into their tremendous potential.

No, when his kids are adults, Thomann said, he wants them to have the same opportunities and the same bright future as any other kid.

And not because they have autism, he said. That is one thing he makes clear: Specialisterne is not a charity. He and all those who share Specialisterne’s long-term goal of providing 100,000 jobs in the US, believe that those with autism have many underutilized skills to offer the work world. Skills that Specialisterne allows them to enhance and grow, and that matter far more than behavioral differences.

Skills, he said, that give those diagnosed with autism a competitive advantage in the work world, just as much as anyone else.

“By what I’ve seen so far in the individuals work, I am convinced that our guys would be the best software testers that Fargo has,” Thomann said. “Because of the people they are.”


Photos courtesy of Specialisterne and Margie Gray.

Learn more about Specialisterne and their mission, here.

Read the full story of the founder of Specialisterne, Thorkil Sonne, in this excellent article from the New York Times.

*This Alex Lee did work at a Target, not associated with Alex from Target.

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Marisa Jackels