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Carsten Lassen, CEO Specialisterne Denmark

“Our goal is to create a labour market where no one is left behind”

In October 2020, Autism-Europe (AE) spoke to Danish social enterprise Specialisterne CEO Carsten Lassen about their mission and function, in the framework of its campaign “I can learn, I can work”. Specialisterne is internationally recognised as the first and foremost example of how autistic adults can become effectively included in society and provide valuable, high-quality services to their employers. Their business model has been successful at employing autistic people with franchises across Europe in many countries who now have their own national ‘Specialisterne’.

AE: Do you have an idea of the unemployment rate of autistic people in Denmark?

CL: The Autism Society in Denmark says that the unemployment rate is between 80-90%, which is a similar trend across the rest of Europe. However, exact figures are difficult to find as you are not allowed to measure your workforce by their autistic diagnosis status.

AE: And how has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your projects and objectives?

CL: The major concern is the increasing unemployment rate in Denmark. It may be too early to tell, but this could have a knock-on effect on autistic people in Denmark. In our experience, autistic people are last in the queue to get a job. That same queue has now got a lot longer and we do expect this factor to have a significant impact.

AE: What do you think are the biggest misconceptions in relation to autism and employment that hinder access to work for autistic people?

CL: Most companies think that it is a lot of extra work to onboard people with autism. When it comes to managing autistic people, they think they need a PhD in Psychology and that merely taking an autistic worker on, can become a full-time job in itself. There is also an anxiety to engage with autistic people because most people think that “they” (autistic workers) cannot ‘handle it’, and they are afraid to do something wrong.

One of the biggest misconceptions is in the monitoring the work of the autistic worker. Some employers think that when an autistic worker is having an ‘off’ day that they should be left alone. This couldn’t be more wrong. At that point, the autistic worker needs close support. This lack of reaction from the manager is down to the fear of not being able to handle it correctly. Some autistic companies often think they can spot an autistic worker on the horizon. However, you cannot “see” autism in a person. This can lead to confusion about the worker and creates the question of “are they or are they not autistic?” in some amusing cases.

These misunderstandings thicken as many people think that autistic people are all non-verbal or that they are just these “superbrains” who are incapable of communicating in an ordinary way. For example, they are either “Einstein” or “Rainman” and this is not right.

In addition, on the subject of repetitive work, not all autistic workers are automatically like this. That is simply not the case. You cannot put all autistic people in a box. This is just not how autism works.

In terms of qualifications, there is also a demand for workers qualified in STEM subjects (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics). De-mystifying autism is key to all this.

AE: To make the world of work accessible, it is essential to be adequately informed. What do you think is key for employers to be aware of in terms of providing reasonable accommodation for people on the autism spectrum?

CL: No two persons are the same, diversity was created for a reason. If you want to consider everyone who acts the same then we would probably become extinct as a species. If you judge everyone in the same way, then as an employer, you have a problem. Whenever we go to a new company, we look at what the culture is in the company such as managerial style, how they work, what is their lunch routine, etc. The awareness that there are special needs for people with autism or other conditions should be taken into account in the onboarding process. Simple things like leaving early, or just understanding that you are not talking to a neurotypical person. All of this varies from person to person.

AE: One of your areas of expertise is precisely related to supporting reasonable accommodation in the workplace. How do you put it into practice? Can you give us some examples?

CL: We had an onboarding at Copenhagen Airport Security Department. They said neurotypical workers made too many mistakes. We had autistic people who took on the security role of processing passengers using body scanners. Despite the skepticism from trade unions who were worried about autistic people ‘stealing’ jobs, we soon found out that autistic workers excelled in this field. For this job, qualities of an extrovert such as being welcoming are not necessary and autistic workers needed concentration for many hours per day, looking at screens where x-rays scanned the luggage for bombs or prohibited items.

Based on competency needed for this job, our guys really did excel here. Now, the airport wants us to do all of this type of security recruitment and training autistic workers to do luggage screening. On average, the typical autistic worker is better on pattern recognition and has better focus on a task and this collaboration is a huge success story.

We also on boarded people who had to be proficient in migration software namely Microsoft Azure for the company Simcorp based in Copenhagen. Our people taught themselves Azure online starting in June. Then, they began their jobs at Simcorp in August. Two months after they began working, they were outperforming their neurotypical peers in that department and now, one of them is an instructor to train others in the software system.

AE: Could you share with us the success factors that you deem important to promote the inclusion of autistic people in the labour market?

CL: Firstly, you need courageous leaders. If it is not a ’top-down’ decision for hiring neurodiverse workers, then most managers tend to go for the easy option and that means ’business as usual’. They go two ways and pay too much or outsource to Lithuania or India. Some companies can get their workload done at a very cheap rate elsewhere in the world. Some sort of incentive structure that would reward managers that could live up to UN Sustainable Development Goal 8 (SDG8: Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and work for all). Most managers say that this is a top priority but they do not know how to actually do it.

Employing autistic people is nowhere near being mainstreamed. There are not many CEOs who wake up in the morning and say ”Crikey! We need to onboard autistic people!”

This is my task to make hiring autistic people a reality.

AE: In 2018, Specialisterne Austria conducted a study on the viability of hiring autistic workers and found that for every €1.00 spent, €6.28 was returned to the economy. Do you have a figure for Specialisterne Denmark?

CL: In Denmark, the welfare state functions so well and we are spending a lot on it, for every autistic person you move from welfare into paid employment, the Danish economy saves €35,000 per year. So obviously, there is an economic incentive for employing autistic person. It would cost around €5,000-10,000 to set up an assessment and programme for each person, this sum would be paid back within the first year of employment.

The impact on a country’s welfare system is clear, as Specialisterne Ireland noted that a subsidy exists (Wage Subsidy Support Scheme) for companies that covers any loss in productivity that an autistic employee incurs (up to 20% of activity). Does such a scheme exist in Denmark?

CL: We have a ”FLEX” system and what this means is that the Muncipality find out maybe that an autistic worker can only do 25 hours per week. So, how it works, the company pays the autistic worker for their 25 hours per week worked, and the State pays the rest which would be 12 hours more as the working week in Denmark is 37 hours per week for a full-time worker. Basically, the autistic worker cannot work the full working week. This system works all the way down to 16 hours per week for the worker.