ILLUSTRATION BY FABIO CONSOLI
The goal of the Denmark-based Specialisterne Foundation is to prepare workers with autism for corporate jobs—and also to help employers support and retain neurodiverse talent. Tara Cunningham, Specialisterne USA’s CEO, is quick to point out that her organization’s Autism at Work and Neurodiversity at Work systems benefit not just autistic and neurodiverse workers but other employees, too. “We hear, universally, that all the [workers] prefer their bosses, because they’re learning how to manage effectively,” she says with a laugh. Here, Cunningham, who was herself recently diagnosed as being neurodiverse, tells us why processes and spaces that accommodate neurodiversity are good for so-called “neurotypicals,” too.
What does Specialisterne do?
We don’t expect autistic people and similar neurodiverse people to change. We expect companies to change their culture to be more inclusive of those that think differently. We work with companies to look at their systems through a neurodiverse lens, so that managers know how to manage appropriately, that spaces are accommodating, that coworkers know how to work well together. Basically, what you’re taught is to be a good manager. The rule of thumb is, if something is annoying to a neurotypical, then it will break an autistic person.
How difficult is the job market for people with autism?
Every year, 50,000 autistic high school students graduate [in America]. Only 17.4 percent go to a four-year college. Only 20 percent of those people actually graduate. When they do graduate, 85 percent of them are under- or unemployed. Literally, you graduate to mom’s couch.
That’s a lot of potential workers—and Specialisterne’s mission extends beyond autism, right?
In the beginning, we focused on autistic people. The last two years, there’s been a push to increase that to people with ADHD, dyslexia, Tourette syndrome—other ways of being in this world that are not “typical.” Now, the truth of the matter is, none of us is typical. We all have different ways of going about life, but there’s this idea that you’re supposed to be this well-rounded individual. The truth is, none of us is well-rounded. One of the best coders we ever saw was dyslexic, but it made him a better coder, because he codes differently. It’s about taking away the disability and looking at the person’s individualized skill.
Being allowed to focus on the aspects of work that I’m best at sounds like something would make me really happy, too.
Exactly. SAP, one of our first clients, found that if employee engagement went up 1 percent [it could mean] €48 million in additional operating profit.
How are you hoping things will change by the end of the decade?
I want us to be out of business [laughs]. I want hiring autistic and other neuro-diverse people to just be the way it’s done. I equate it to the ’70s, with white males going, “You think women could be managers?” That is such an antiquated, silly idea today. I’m hoping that’s what autism is in 10 years’ time.