Peter Jensen is a manager in an international company and a recognised expert in his field, but a Friday bar at work leaves him drained. Like many other neurodivergent people, he has to work extra hard to fit into the labour market.
If Peter Jensen reads a technical report, he can immediately spot a discrepancy between two pieces of information on page 5 and page 87.
In his spare time, he prefers to immerse himself in technically complex subjects. At the moment, it's earthquakes, and his ability to hyper-focus means that in a short period of time he has acquired more knowledge about the natural phenomenon than many would do in the course of a degree programme. In other words, he is significantly better than average at retaining information, and he notices details that are invisible or unimportant to most people.
These qualities, together with a strong analytical mind, have made him an expert in the use of digital sensors to maintain infrastructure - An expertise he puts to use as a manger in an international company in the industry.
“I'm really good at these things. Not in spite of my autism, but because of my autism", he says.
Peter Jensen is diagnosed with Asperger's, a diagnosis at the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum, but he prefers the term systemizer which is not an actual diagnosis but a personality profile developed by Simon Baron-Cohen, a British psychologist and professor at Cambridge University.
According to Simon Baron-Cohen, people can be placed on a curve according to their systematic and emotional intelligence. Most people have an average ability to solve logical tasks and to engage in social contexts, but people with a systemizer profile score high on their ability to solve logical tasks and low on their ability to socialise and empathise.
Both fit Peter Jensen, who is the ideal profile of an engineer in terms of his logical thinking, systematisation and innovation skills. On the other hand, he doesn't like to look others in the eye and finds it difficult to empathise with their feelings. To compensate, he has learned to look at the point right between the eyes of the person he is talking to and constantly analyses the facial expressions and movements of others; are they smiling or looking angry, are they fidgeting in their chair or relaxed?
"People with autism cannot intuitively perceive how others are feeling, and they have difficulty recognising what is being said between the lines. Therefore, many of us have learnt to compensate by arriving at these conclusions through rational thinking instead".
Sitting across from Peter Jensen, you can't sense this constant intense analytical work, but it drains him and helps to turn office breakfasts, small talk and Friday bars into gruelling activities rather than relaxing breaks.
"I spend a lot of time before, during and after a situation analysing what I am going to do or have done and how others will react. It's a huge energy drain, and I think that alone can prevent many people with autism from entering the labour market", he explains.
Peter Jensen was diagnosed with Asperger's midway through primary school, and because he received the necessary support, he was later given a regular education programme, first taking an HTX and then studying for a Master's in Engineering at the Technical University of Denmark. For a while, he thought that the doctors had misdiagnosed him because he was thriving and doing well academically, but when he started his first full-time job, he was suddenly under pressure.
"I had to be part of a team of 12 with a high professional level, which I could just about manage because it was small enough for me to get to know them all and relate to them. But then there were also the legal specialists, the communication department, HR and all the other departments".
"There were many more people, more dynamics and less predictability, and this meant that the safe environment disappeared. I had to be more adaptable, as they say, and it didn't come naturally to me," says Peter Jensen.
In recent years, there has been a steep increase in the number of Danes being diagnosed with, among other things, ADHD and autism, and it is still being debated whether this is due to changes in our environment or better diagnostic tools. Anne-Mette Lange, who is a clinical psychologist at Aarhus University Hospital, points out that you also have to look at the increasing demands in the school system and on the labour market to understand the development.
"Society in general has started to make insanely high demands that you should be able to do everything: You don't just have to be good at your job, you have to be able to sit still for several hours at a time, work in an open-plan office with many impressions, manage your own time and tasks, and interact with many people".
Some researchers suggest that new diagnoses often emerge as society changes. Dyslexia became a diagnosis when it became the norm in society for everyone to read and write. ADHD has become much more common in the sedentary knowledge society, and more people are being diagnosed with autism in today's hypersocial society.
"For some people who have traits of ADHD or autism, it does not manifest itself until they join the labour market, where people who have previously been high-functioning suddenly begin to struggle," explains Anne-Mette Lange.
For people with autism, who thrive in specialised positions with a high level of immersion, it is particularly challenging that personal skills are now as important as professional ones, explains Carsten Lassen, Director of Specialisterne (The Specialists) an organisation that works to integrate people with ADHD and autism into the Danish labour market.
"You have to be better at communicating and selling yourself, so you can't keep a low profile, as you might have been able to do in the past. There is no doubt that this puts additional pressure on this group as social competences become more important", says Carsten Lassen.
He points out that this makes people with autism particularly vulnerable to stress and burnout.
"They have a regular full-time job and then they have a full-time job managing their emotions because they know they are bad at decoding social relationships. So they put a lot of effort into it and can end up burning out".
At the beginning of his working life, when Peter Jensen realised that he was under pressure in a completely different way than during his studies, he decided to talk to his manager. Initially, he raised the subject with his manager cautiously, so that he could measure the reaction.
"I waited until an appropriate occasion where there was a somewhat casual vibe, and then I asked him what he thought of people who have the kind of abilities that people with autism have. He was very positive about that. Then I felt comfortable telling him that I myself have been diagnosed with Asperger's," says Peter Jensen.
Together with his manager, he started looking at training programmes that could help him in his daily work. This included courses in co-operation and communication, as he often found it difficult to communicate his thoughts and ideas to his colleagues. However, it was a self-understanding course that was, in Peter Jensen's own words, "life-changing" for him. He learnt how to get an overview of and limit stressful factors in his everyday life, and he was given a number of models that described his way of thinking, which he could explain to those around him.
"As a child, you are told to treat others as you want them to treat you. I have since realised that this does not apply to me. I have to treat others as others treat each other, and then I have to tell them how I want them to treat me.
For example, I like people to say things very directly rather than wrapping it up in a long, long story that I don't understand a word of anyway - but if I do that to others, it often goes wrong".
One of the challenges for many with a systemiser profile like Peter Jensen is that they can appear very direct and tough. They find it difficult to compromise, they don't sugarcoat their messages and can appear both overly critical and pedantic - something that can be difficult to correct when they can't read the reactions of those around them.
"Often people hide their feelings. If you accidently provoke them, they won't show it, and then I can sit and continue a dialogue, even if the person I'm talking to is getting more and more angry".
This became clear to Peter Jensen himself when a meeting with a colleague "went off the rails" because he kept insisting that she solve a task that she thought was too technically complicated.
"At one point we had a break and I went out to get a cup of coffee and when I came back to the meeting room she was crying. I could tell she was feeling bad, but I didn't know how to deal with it. I had to run out and get the line manager and say, "you have to deal with it".
The confidential relationship that Peter Jensen had with his manager meant that there was someone who could help to "smooth things over" when he had made a mistake with a colleague and who could explain his particular way of thinking to others in the organisation.
"When I later got a new manager, the first thing I did was to say; I need us to sit down for two hours. There's something I need to tell you and we need to set expectations. Every single manager since then has been incredibly positive about it".
However, not everyone is as lucky with their managers as Peter Jensen has been. In a survey by the Central Disability Council one in four managers respond that they do not want to work with an employee who has a mental disability, and Peter Jensen's own feeling is that the real figure is probably much higher.
He himself did not want to give his full name or workplace in this article because he fears that in the future he will be pre-judged by potential employers if they know his diagnosis before they know him as a person, and he understands if others hesitate to tell him at job interviews or at their workplace.
"I want to be seen as the whole me, not just a diagnosis. You have to have confidence in the person you tell. Partly so that the person doesn't pass it on to others, but also to avoid being pigeonholed".
“I don't mind if people I know well know, because to them I'm Peter, who also happens to have autism. If people don't know me in advance, I'm afraid of being reduced to the autistic Peter", he explains.
Today, Peter Jensen is thriving both personally and professionally, largely because he is at peace with who he is and how to deal with everyday life.
"Society has a lot of expectations for how ordinary people should behave. You have to have a lot of friends, a social life and participate in social events. I've learnt that it's okay to be selfish and say that it's not up to them. It's perfectly alright to opt out of a Christmas party. People accept it and it makes me feel better".
"Since I've learnt to use methods to deal with racing thoughts and anxiety through metacognitive therapy, I'm fully at peace with myself and it takes more to knock me out or make me stressed".
He himself feels that there is an increasing acceptance of people with diagnoses in Denmark, and that this is partly due to the LGBTQ+ movement and the body positivist movement, which has increased the understanding that it is positive to stand out.
In recent years, the idea of neurodiversity as a benefit to society has also been on the rise. The term was first used in an essay by Australian sociologist Judy Singer in the late nineties as a counterpart to biodiversity, because Singer wanted to emphasise the benefits of having different ways of thinking and perceiving the world. The central idea of neurodiversity is that diagnoses such as autism, ADD, ADHD and dyslexia are not mistakes, but necessary variations of the human brain.
People with autism or ADHD, for example, are the specialists and innovators in a society of generalists. They are more critical and willing to take risks, and have a special ability to immerse themselves or embark on new projects. This is why they have played a key role in the development of technology, art, culture and administration throughout history.
"Neurodiversity is an acceptance that all brains are different. It is the core message that no two brains think alike, and even within the normal spectrum, everyone is different", explains Carsten Lassen, Director of Specialisterne.
However, he explains that a distinction is typically made between neurotypicals, who have average cognitive abilities, and neurodivergents, who have greater fluctuations due to a diagnosis.
"Most people have a fairly normal distribution of competences. They are average in language, maths and social skills, or vary slightly from average.
Neurodivergent people have a somewhat more varied competence profile. They can be extremely good at pattern recognition, maths or logical thinking, but it comes at the expense of something else, and what most neurodivergent people have in common is that they are more challenged in social skills," he explains.
One review estimates that 15 -20 percent of the population can be categorized as neurodivergent. However, Anne-Mette Lange, who is a clinical psychologist at Aarhus University, does not believe that it is possible to say how many can really be described as neurodivergent.
"It is a relatively new concept and it is reflected in the research literature that there is no consensus on who we are actually talking about".
"There is a huge variation in our biological functions and brains, and most of us have features of ADHD and autism, for example, so it is difficult to make a cut-off point and say that you are neurodivergent," she explains.
A study has shown that the proportion of children diagnosed with autism is significantly higher in Eindhoven compared to other Dutch regions. This is interesting because Eindhoven has an extensive IT sector and because since the noughties, there has been speculation that a possible increase in the number of autism diagnoses in an area like Silicon Valley could be due to the fact that many people with autistic traits find jobs in STEM industries. Autism has even been dubbed 'the engineering gene', and according to Carsten Lassen, director of Specialisterne, there is something to it.
"I am absolutely convinced that in engineering circles and in the IT industry there is a huge over-representation of people on the autism spectrum. It's all about the exact and logical, and these are often workplaces where there is more room for the immersion that these people love," he explains.
Peter Jensen also wishes more employers would realise that the advantages of employing people with autistic traits far outweigh the disadvantages.
"Many employers see it as a huge resource drain to integrate an employee with autism, but my view is that there are many people who will fit so perfectly in the STEM field that you as an employer get two employees for the price of one, if you just make a few adjustments," he says.
Peter Jensen himself has been involved in the start-up of a new IDA initiative that will result in a number of initiatives to support neurodivergent IDA members. Two new network groups for neurodivergent people and although Peter Jensen enjoys his job, he misses sharing experiences with others who experience being in the labour market in the same way as he does.
He also believes that IDA can play a key role in translating the particular strengths and challenges that neurodivergent people have, so that more people can enter the labour market or thrive better in their workplace.
Malene Matthison-Hansen, who chairs IDA's Council of Employees, says that IDA will continue to work to support neurodivergent members, whether they have autism, ADHD, ADD, dyslexia or another diagnosis.
"We are by no means experts on the subject, but it is a core task for IDA to help our members succeed in the labour market. In collaboration with several members, we have now started to look at how we can best play an active role, whether it is career counselling, events or some completely different initiatives for the target group".
"But we also realise that this is a very diverse group with different needs and wants. Having a diagnosis or being neurodivergent is just one aspect of a person, so we have to be very thorough in the research phase so that we don't develop one service for everyone, but organise our services so that everyone can receive support under the conditions that suit them best," says Malene Matthison-Hansen.
The term neurodiversity refers to the variance in brain function when comparing a group of people. The term was coined by Australian sociologist Judy Singer as a way of signalling awareness of the neurological differences that exist in a group of people. In this way, a workplace, interest group or society can signal that it is working politically and practically to include neurodivergent people and take into account their specific needs.
The word neurodivergent means that a brain has atypical characteristics, and can therefore be diagnosed with, for example, ADHD, autism, mental illness, epilepsy, etc. Neurodivergent means having a different brain.
The word neurotypical means that a brain is "normal" and thus has evolved and now functions in a way that does not fulfil the diagnostic criteria for autism, ADHD, brain injury, intellectual disability, etc.
The word neurotypical was invented so that we can talk about people without diagnoses without using the word 'normal'. There is a value charge in the word normal, signalling that the normal is better and more correct than the "abnormal".
Source: The Specialists