Prague round table through the eyes of Jan-Mikael Fredriksson

We were delighted to receive an invitation to introduce the Finnish autism spectrum webzine Puoltaja in a conference "Supported empoloyment  in the Czech Republic and abroad", held in Praha in May 14.-15..

It was a lovely warm day when we arrived Prague on Tuesday 12.5.. The conference organizer APLA had kindly arranged for us an opportunity to explore the city for a couple of days in advance . After checking in the hotel we took immediately for some sightseeing. The hotel was located in the vicinity of the Prague Castle, in a convenient walking distance downhill to the city centre through Malá Strana, or the "small quarter" and luckily we could spare our feet coming back to the hotel by a tram.

The most interesting building of the castle area was surely the magnificent gothic style St. Vitus Cathedral, which brought to our minds the classic Donald Duck-story "The phantom of Notre Duck". We marveled at the rugged towers, glorious stained glass windows and gargoyles decorating the eaves. Just below the castle was the beautiful Malá Strana - district with its old houses and winding, well-groomed alleys. There would have been numerous restaurants and other temptations for tourists, but we proceeded over the Vltava to the Old Town, or Stare Mesto, side.

Every visitor of Prague must for sure see the Town Hall Square, home of perhaps the most famous and photographed attraction, the astronomical clock Orloj. Its curious characteristics and many stories related to its history could be a topic of a lengthy aspie-style lecture but I will restrain myself and spare the readers.

Next we diced to hop the tram and spend some time just seeing the city. The public transport of Prague is excellent. As in Helsinki, you can travel with the same ticket within a given transfer time in all means of transport. After the tour we became thirsty and had to refresh our palates with a couple of pints at a tavern. In Prague beer lovers life is made wonderfully easy, because the prices are very cheap compared to those in Finland and all bars have table service. Just sit down and enjoy!

As the evening approached we walked along the banks of the Vltava River to a park where many local youngsters were enjoying the warm early summer evening. After the sun went down we found one more excellent and affordable traditional pub called Hostinec U Rotundy, with which we fell in love right away. We decided to become regular customers for our time being in Prague.  It was a real time travel back to the 80's! What a wonderful place.

Next morning, just after tasty breakfast, we headed to explore a little further the Malá Strana area. Again we were most impressed with a church, this time a baroque one called St. Nicholas baroque, which is justly said to be one of the most beautiful in Europe. My interest focused particularly on the amazing ceiling frescoes with a wonderful false perspective.  We walked along the famed Charles Bridge to the city center and - lo and behold - soon we found ourselves again in our favourite hospoda where we enjoyed a brutal 700 g dose of pork knuckle, which was delicious and so tender that the meat actually dropped from the bones. Omnomnom! I must mention one more unforgettable moment in that pub when we cheered for the Finnish ice hockey team fighting against Czech Republic. Atmosphere was great even though we were the only Finns among the fierce crowd of some 40 Czech hockey maniacs. Fortunately, Finland lost the game, so we got out of the pub unscatched...

But now to the Conference! Most of the lectures were in Czech language, but fortunately they had simultaneous translation. It worked  smoothly, but I wished there were printed abstracts of lectures in English, because my ability to process auditory information is quite weak, which I guess is a typical Asperger trait.

The 2000 EU directive states that employers must take appropriate measures to allow a person with diasbilities to get or keep a job. The UN convention on the rights of people with disabilities, ratified in 2010 by the EU, states that people with disabilities have the right to work and gain their own living on an equal base with others. Unfortuately, despite of these noble statements adults with autism face serious discrimination and have a very limited access to employment opportunities. According to statistics, only about 10-15 % of Europeans with ASD are in full-time jobs, compared to employment rate of about 50% in  other disabilty groups. Over 40% of adults with ASD say that they have lost or left their previous job because of their condition. However, almost 80% of autistic people on out of work benefits would like to work. This means that there are over 2 million unemployed persons with ASD in Europe wishing to get a job! Considering these facts it is no surprise  that access to employment is considered a priority by the members of Autism Europe.  Autism Europe calls on the EU to monitor employment , unemployment  and access to vocational training programmes of persons with ASD, to support awareness raising campaigns among employers and to promote training of employment services on the skills and needs of persons with ASD.

The Non-Discrimination Act requires employers to make reasonable adjustments in order to find employment opportunities for disabled persons, and guarantee access to everything that is involved in doing and keeping the job. Employers and employees must be informed about  the crucial features of autism spectrum disorder, including the strenghts. An employee with ASD may have numerous assets in his job, such as accuracy and attention to details, reliabilty and loyalty, depth of kowledge, techical skills and so on. Autistic persons must be seen as skilled workers who can truly benefit the business, instead of burden or free laborers. Accessible and inclusive work environment allows employees' talents, strengths and development potential being put into service. An increasing number of companies are waking up to the fact that diversity of the workforce is a real strength.

A number of European projects are in favor of the operating model in which a company or an association acts as an "agency office" between autistic persons and employers. The aim is to find the best potential employees for a suitable company. It is necessary to offer appropriate induction training for employers, share information about autism spectrum disorders and arrange necessary adaptations and specific arrangements in the work environment. A skilled coach can work as a mediator between the employee and employer and his services can be used not only at the beginning of the employment relationship,but flexibly whenever needed. The coach can also assist both workers and employers in applying for the suitable employment subsidies, tailoring the work environment, evaluating  the quality of work and assisting in the potential problem situations. The employee may also receive assistance to arrange his leisure time, maintain health and well-being and support self-determination and self advocacy. Oftentimes it is also necessary to educate and support the employees' family because it is quite common that they are overprotective, and do not always have enough confidence in his abilities.

Specialisterne is a Danish company founded in 2004 and it is considered to be a pioneer in supporting autistic people's employability. Besides Denmark it runs business nowadays in several countries worldwide and has managed to offer training and work for hundreds of autistic people in the IT industry. The affiliate companies include SAP, Microsoft, Nokia, Deloitte, Cisco and Oracle. The ambitious aim of Specialisterne is to create jobs for up to a million autistic people. Specialisterne emphasizes that hiring the autistic workers is very profitable for the company and generates competitive advantage, since the workers are accurate and detail-oriented, have a strenght for routine and repetitive tasks, tolerate zero mistakes and are persistent and loyal employees. Each employee will first go through a 5-month internship, during which his special strengths and needs for support are identified. At the same time the working conditions are modified to meet his unique needs. In the Czech Republic Specialisterne cooperates with the software corporation SAP who has promised to hire about  75 autistic persons, which corresponds to approx. 1% of the company's workforce.

In Belgium there is a co-operative IT-company called Passwerk whose operating principle and business model is similar to Specialisterne. Its cooperation partners are federal authorities, the Brussels public transport, banks and pharmaceutical industry. Each employee will first go through three weeks assessment period, and for every seven employees there is a coach who works in close co-operation between the employee and his employer.

Italian cosmetics manufacturer L'Oreal organizes training courses and hires young people with ASD in wide range of jobs including storage, packing, database management and quality control according to employee's interests and level of skills.

British supported employment service called Prospects works in partnership with National Autistic Society and provides training and guidance for a variety of jobs, such as librarians, music technicians, gardeners, florists, decorators, illustrators, journalists, data analysts etc. One important partner is the investment banking firm Goldman Sachs, who has hired ASD people as business analysts with promising results.

There are several good practices to support autistic people's employment. It is pivotal to support the employee at the very beginning of the employment process, for instance to give assistance and reassurance on job search, making a job application and practice for job interview. On the other hand job interviews can be made as accessible as possible.  Often the recruitment stage cand be particulary discriminating for the persons with ASD but the requirement of reasonable adjustments also applies to interviews. The job applicant should be given clear and detailed information about the duration of the interview and the expected questions. The interviewer is instructed to keep the questions comprehensible and well-defined. Open-ended and vague questions should be avoided. For instance, it is better to ask the job applicant to describe  his  previous job role and work assignments, rather than to ask questions like "tell me more about yourself." The interview may be replaced with specific tests that measure working skills. Sometimes it is also necessary to use a support person who can assist in rephrasing the questions.

Before the first  day in a new job the employee should be instructed in such basic issues as appropriate dress code and social expectations of the working community. The employer can, in turn, be instructed to tell about tasks and goals in a concrete and unambiguous manner. The working environment should be arranged to be as structured, uncluttered and free of sensory distractions as possible. Employees can be guided about time management, subdividing the work tasks into smaller subtasks and using calendar and check lists.

Managers and collagues should be instructed to give honest, direct and constructive feedback with spesific and understandable instructions. Feedback should be as positive as possible, and any complaints must be given privately so that the employee does not have to be embarrassed in front of his collagues.

If the employee agrees, the whole working community can be  informed about the features of autism spectrum disorder and how they may affect work and social interaction. A very good practice can be to arrange  for the employee a mentor within the company who can support him

Overall the conference was well arranged and lots of interesting and useful information was offered. It is wonderful that various project workers, experts and self advocates from around the Europe can get togehter and share their good practices. For time being, unemployment of the ASD persons continues to be a huge problem all over the World, but I believe little by little things are getting better. At least there is a shared will and determination to tackle this issue. It is said that small streams make a big river so let's keep on working together and sharing  ideas. Thank you APLA and Autism Europe for giving us this opportunity to introduce our Puoltaja webzine in the conference. And děkuji Praha, wonderful city!

Jan-Mikael Fredriksson

Volunteer work coordinator

The Finnish Association for Autism and Asperger´s Syndrome

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