Specialisterne is a social enterprise looking for people with specific talents for tasks within the IT sector that require an extreme level of excellence.
These talents or abilities are connected with high levels of concentration, resilience, perseverance, great attention to detail, excellent memory, and great visual skills.
“We found above-average levels of performance in people with a diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome or who are on the autism spectrum,” says Francesc Sistach, CEO of Specialisterne for Spain, Italy, and Latin America.
Neurodiversity in the workplace
“Neurodiversity may be every bit as crucial for the human race as biodiversity is for life in general,” wrote journalist Harvey Blume in 1998 in one of his articles in The Atlantic magazine.
Specialisterne is trying to live up to this definition. It aims to turn the characteristics of autism (attention to detail, concentration, honesty) into super skills for the technology sector.
Specialisterne is an initiative that began in Denmark in 2004 and was set up to train people diagnosed with autism or Asperger’s and reintegrate them into the workplace.
“People with these diagnoses generally have a high IQ and good cognitive abilities, but their social difficulties have excluded them from the workplace even though they’re qualified to be there,” says Francesc Sistac.
At Specialisterne, they don’t use the classical selection process employed by a human resources department. For example, they aren’t looking for flexible, sociable people with many university-level qualifications.
“We’re looking for those innate skills, and we find them by using questionnaires as well as personal interviews and a series of activities where candidates are set several challenges. This allows us to see how they cope with different situations, which helps us to see whether they’re going to be suitable or not for the tasks,” explains the CEO of Specialisterne.
One of the tests the company sets includes programming a Lego robot. Previous knowledge of programming is not a requirement for this exercise, because it is done in a very visual and simple way, “which allows us to see how they deal with a challenge, how they ask for help, how they structure certain tasks. All of that tells us about each person’s potential,” he says.
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Emphasizing the differences
“99% of the people we’ve trained don’t work in the Specialisterne offices. They work on projects for other companies or have been hired –generally– in areas where there’s a lack of talent, such as the IT sector,” says Francesc.
More than 2,000 men and women have been trained by Specialisterne. Its model has also inspired other companies, which is why they claim to have had an impact on more than 10,000 people. They are just getting started in Latin America and according to company data have a total of 170 people trained and working.
For 16 years, their training process has been implemented on two fronts: not just selecting neurodiverse people (those with autism or Asperger’s), but also raising staff awareness in the companies where they’re going to work.
“Neurodiversity can be quite frightening, but it’s not that complicated. The first rule is getting them to treat neurodiverse people like any other employee by preparing them for it,” explains Sistac.
The trainees will also always have the support of an advisor or manager, a psychologist, and –of course– their co-workers.
Neurodiversity in action
The company has been rewarded with some satisfying experiences, but the beginning is always difficult. “We’ve had to pay for some people’s bus tickets so they could take our training because their family had no resources, but today they are the family’s primary source of income. According to the bank they work for, they’re also the best Big Data analysts,” says the CEO of Specialisterne
The example Sistac gives happened at the São Paulo headquarters of Itaú Unibanco Holding, one of the most important banks in Brazil, where there is now a project including 20 neurodiverse people.
Another case occurred at Sony video games. “They told us that our staff found twice as many errors as the other testers and they were the only ones who classified the errors according to the nomenclature and regulations. They said our testers test things that nobody else thinks of,” he says.
Neurodiverse people not only check whether a character shoots correctly or if the movements are right, but they also pay special attention to details such as the leaf of a tree being illuminated from the left when the sun is on the right.
Most of the people who go to Specialisterne are in their 20s and 30s, the age at which most people are looking for employment, “but I will never forget the case of a 40-year-old who was hired by a company after completing our training. His father, who’s over 70, called us to let us know that he felt he could now die in peace knowing that his son would be able to survive and support himself,” says Sistac.
Those are the stories behind the company that is looking for neurodiverse people to help them enter the job market. “Never give up on your children! I myself have a daughter with severe autism and I haven’t given up on the idea that she’ll get a job one day,” adds Sistac.
Neurodiversity is a trending new source of talent that has arrived in Mexico. They only have one project currently, but Francesc Sistac hopes that this year they can resume the plans they began back in 2020.