UK Work & Pensions Secretary sees local autism work success

Front Row Ciara Kennedy, Development Manager, IBM, The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Thérèse Coffey, and Nuala Smyth, UnLtd with some of the team from Specialisterne NI,, and Specialisterne NI clients


On a visit to Northern Ireland today (24 August) the UK Secretary of State for Work & Pensions, Rt Hon Thérèse Coffey MP, took time to visit East Belfast social enterprise, Specialisterne NI, which supports autistic people to start and develop their careers and supports employers to recruit and develop the talent of autistic people.

Part of an international network that works across 15 countries, Specialisterne is a pioneer of ‘Autism at Work’, an international movement, which supports companies to identify and reduce the barriers autistic people face entering the workplace. It also helps companies to develop working environments that help autistic people thrive at work. During her visit, the Work & Pensions Secretary met with a number of autistic people working in IT and local IT employers who have recently recruited autistic people.

Welcoming Thérèse Coffey to Specialisterne NI, Managing Director, Sharon Didrichsen, said, ‘We were delighted to welcome the Secretary of State today, and welcome the fact that she was keen to hear first-hand from autistic people in the workplace and companies that welcome autistic people;.

“During the visit we were able to brief the Secretary of State on ways in which we have been able to support talented people with Autism in the workplace. This included our autistic community programme ‘2gether’, which connects autistic people to each other, and our two ‘Recruit’ programmes, which support autistic people to find work.”

During the visit, the Work and Pensions Secretary met 11 autistic people who talked about what it is like to work in Northern Ireland companies. She also heard from autistic people looking for work post Lockdown. Two local employers who have recently recruited autistic people with Specialisterne’s support, shared what recruiting at the moment is like from an employer’s perspective. Ciara Kennedy, Development Manager at IBM, was one of the employers attending today “Diversity and Inclusion are at the very core of IBM’s principles and we are very proud of our local and global work with Specialisterne. We have had great success with the recruitment programme. Our new hires are of exceptional technical talent and are thriving in their teams.”

During the visit, the Specialisterne team shared job outcomes of its 3-year autistic community programme, ‘2gether’, which is funded by the National Lottery Community Fund. Sharon Didrichsen explained that the programme’s aims were decided by autistic people. The aims autistic people decided on include having a career, feeling socially connected, feeling represented, and reducing communication barriers.

“Over the 3 years there were 90 participants on 2gether. 74/90 participants were unemployed on joining 2gether. 75% of those in work felt at risk of losing their job. Participants secured 86 jobs, 13 of which were promotions. Of the 86 jobs, 22% were in IT, 15% in retail, 14% in administrative roles, 9% in finance or risk analyst roles, 9% Trainer roles, 8% roles in various government departments, 8% working in laboratories or in health care, 6% in restaurants, 5% in education and research and 4% in marketing. 21 people started to study 25 courses in total. I think these figures speak for themselves and indicate the talent and abilities that autistic people have for a range of careers,” Mrs Didrichsen said.

The visit was well received by the autistic people who attended, who had opportunity to answer questions as well as to pose questions around disability policy and to make recommendations. Christian, who had secured a job that was cancelled due to Covid-19 said, ‘It was an honour to have been here today and it was fantastic experience to speak to the Secretary of State.’ Rebecca commented ‘The visit today was a very encouraging opportunity for myself and others. Specialisterne deserve the positive recognition that they are receiving for their tireless work and dedication of supporting Autistic people in and out of work’. James said it was “A surreal experience, bringing all parties to the table. This is one way to return to normality”

Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Thérèse Coffey said:

“It was wonderful to hear first-hand about the fantastic work that Specialisterne NI does to help people with autism into the world of work.

“In the challenging employment market it is also heartening to know that companies are welcoming those with autism into the fold and supporting their needs.

“Through schemes such as Disability Confident and Access to Work we aim to remove barriers to employment to help grow a diverse workforce that supports people of all needs and abilities.”


The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Thérèse Coffey


James Toolan, Senior Private Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions and Christian, Specialisterne NI client

Some of the team at Specialisterne NI. From left to right Sharon Didrichsen, Managing Director, Maggie Lockhart, Connect4 Autism Consultant, Emily Matchett, Connect4 Autism Consultant, Elaine Stephens, Team Lead, Stacey Austin, Recruit++ Autism Consultant, Sian Dunwoody, Recruit++ Autism Consultant

About Specialisterne NI

Specialisterne NI is a Community Interest Company, which is not for private profit, and which is part of the Specialisterne international network. It works with people who may have a diagnosis of Autism or Aspergers, or who can find communication in the workplace difficult. It also helps employers recruit and retain people with communication difference in the workplace and grow diverse effective teams.

Founded in Belfast in 2014, Specialisterne NI has a team of 10 who support autistic people and employers so that more autistic people secure and sustain better careers.

It currently supports autistic people through five programmes:

  • 2gether, an autistic community programme, which was funded by the National Lottery Community Fund, and delivered over 3 years.
  • Recruit+ and Recruit++, 2 programmes which are funded by the European Social Fund, which support autistic people to secure work. Recruit programmes are part funded through the Northern Ireland European Social Fund Programme 2014 -2020, the Department for the Economy, the Department for Communities and the Belfast City Council.
  • In-work support
  • Connect4, an autistic community school programme, designed by 100 autistic young people across 10 grammar and secondary schools. Connect4 is funded by the National Lottery Community Fund.

Specialisterne NI supports employers by delivering the following services:

  • Autism at Work recruitment: end to end recruitment support for an academy or recruitment of specific roles
  • Training workshops, delivered in person or via Zoom, on how to recruit, manage and develop the talents of autistic people
  • Autism systems change services: reviewing processes within a company so that they better support autistic applicants and employees
  • In -work support and consultation regarding specific employees who are autistic and their teams.

Specialisterne itself was founded in Denmark by IT Manager, Thorkil Sonne, in 2004, who observing his autistic son’s remarkable memory wished his testing team had a memory like him.

Specialisterne works across 15 countries and has the aim of 1 million careers for autistic people. In 2013 Specialisterne pioneered the Autism at Work movement with international clients which include Microsoft, IBM, and SAP.

For more information contact Sharon Didrichsen Email: Mobile: 07565 936191 Website:





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