Specialisterne Ireland – Proving the abilities of people on the autistic spectrum

Peter Barbazon discusses how Specialisterne Ireland began, grew and who it supports
  1. How Did Specialisterne begin?

The Specialist People Foundation, based in Denmark,was set up by an IT Executive, Thorkil Sonne in 2004 after his young son was diagnosed with autism. It has since grown into an international foundation, which owns the Specialisterne concept and trademark. Specialisterne, which translates from Danish as “the specialists”, is an innovative social enterprise providing assessment, training, support, and IT consultancy services, where most of the employees are people with autism.

The not-for-profit foundation uses a consulting business model to show companies how to train and employ people with autism in their organizations. To date, Specialisterne has offices in 12 countries including Ireland where we started at the end of 2004 and today are working with companies including SAP, OpenApp, DPS (Cork), Vodafone, Janssen, Bank of Ireland and many others.

  1. How did you get involved in setting up Specialisterne Ireland?

I was concerned as parent of a son with autism for his future in transitioning from education to employment. And, through my involvement with another charity, Aspire, I heard about the Specialisterne Foundation. Then with two others we launched the organisation in Ireland first to the IT sector as we saw that that sector and others had a talent shortage. That is, despite the country still being in the grip of a recession and where unemployed people with autism could often successfully work in that sector. Our aim was to match the two together as we now have done for nearly 400 people with autism or similar neurodiverse challenges.

  1. How difficult was it to get the company started?

Our challenges in starting were the usual difficulties. That is, we started when there was little state funding available due to the recession, the concept of a social enterprise was new in Ireland and we had to build a team that could face both ways. That is, act in a “business-to-business” manner when working with employers while at the same time, as a “not for profit”, having all the characteristics of a charitable yet sustainable service. Because our income is part derived from the placement fees that comes after we would have guided and prepared candidates for work, we therefore had to seek funding to get started in the first place. This we got from the EU’s Leader programme thanks to the Ballyhoura Development Company with bridging support from the charity bank Clann Credo and further support from SAP.

  1. SAP was one of your earliest clients, how did the relationship begin? how has it developed since?

SAP was indeed our earliest client and also became our biggest employer of our candidates. Liam Ryan, the CEO of SAP in Ireland, was one of the first people we approached for support knowing him already from the world of educational robotics. We were amazed and delighted with his response for not only did he give us a room as an office and assessment room, kick-off funding for our first two years but also took 3 of the four candidates that we placed in year one. Indeed, over 25 people have now benefited from working with our support at SAP Dublin and Galway and today it remains our biggest partner employer with 12 candidates employed.

  1. How successful has the company been in Ireland? How many people on the autstic spectrum have you placed in companies in Ireland?

Today we have grown to 9 staff and 3 contractors supporting about 60 candidates in over 30 companies. Last year we worked with a further 155 new candidates and we have grown from placing just 4 people in our first year to over 80 last year. This growth has been built on our many partnerships with colleges like NCI, DCU, IT Carlow, and others while also strongly aligning with various government bodies like Intreo and Employability. Recently we have made a particular and successful effort to partner with other charities working in our area. These would include Aspire, AsIAm.ie and Dyspraxia DCD Ireland

  1. Who are some of your most supportive partners in both sourcing candidates and placing them?

In a way the whole neurodiverse community of potential candidates, their families and representative organisations are sourcing our candidates. Also, candidates themselves as young adults are socialising, talking about us and recommending us. Indeed, there is one group that meet for a drink, in normal times, and we have helped four of them gain employment.

Then on the other side are our employer partners. That is, just as we have many partners in the neurodiverse community referring us we also have many in companies. For example, SAP frequently endorse our services to other companies while recently the employer organisations of the IDA and Enterprise Ireland organised a webinar event attended by over 100 industrial representatives.

  1. If someone wants to join your services what’s the process for joining?

If you wish to benefit from our service as a candidate then please just go on to our website at : https://www.specialisterne.ie/   for more information or go straight to https://www.specialisterne.ie/contact-us/ and complete your query.

If you are interested in becoming an employee, we advertise occasionally. We are currently in early 2021 seeking assessment and support personnel who would have an understanding, education, and maybe business experience of our area of work.

  1. How has the pandemic affected your services?

Yes, unfortunately we haven’t been able to provide our normal “one-to-one” physical meeting service to candidates during the pandemic.  We have had to replace that support service with Zoom and WhatsApp meetings. Interestingly, this has generally worked well for most of our candidates but we have had to increase our the rate of our support calls to working candidates in particular. Many find home working more stressful due to inadequate space requirements, or occasionally poor broadband etc. and in general missing the social interaction of the workplace.

Nevertheless 2020 was a good year in terms of meeting many more new candidates and we had an increase in the numbers we helped gain employment

  1. What are your plans for 2021

Growth through partnership is our key strategic objective. That is to increase our presence on the ground and to reach more neurodiverse people with the funding and support of companies and the Government including the recently received Dormant Account Funds coupled with those from ReThink Ireland. The latter to help us focus our support while increasing our operational efficiency.

  1. Are there any other organisations in Diversity and Inclusion that you are particularly a fan of?

Like others I am particularly taken with the work of AsIAm.ie as the key advocacy group for autism in Ireland and am very glad to have worked with them on a number of good projects. Right around the country there are excellent organisations from “Not so Different” in Dublin to the “Galway Autism Partnership” (GAP), “Aspect” in Cork and very many others. But in particular, I admire the work of Aspire and Dyspraxia Ireland DCD. We are now in formal partnerships with both these charities so as to more effectively deliver on all our shared goals of employment for neurodiverse people.

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