Students of today are the engineers of the future. They are facing major societal challenges in areas such as sustainability and the environment. But what is it like to work on a groundbreaking innovation when you are in your twenties? A new year offers new opportunities. This year Dirk van Meer, a student at Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e), and his team will build the first factory capable of recycling metal. This might resolve the impending metal shortage. As the captain of Team CORE, he is determining the course and at the same time pursuing his own dreams. This isn’t always easy. Especially since he has Asperger’s, a form of autism.

As a five-year old boy, he sat under the table crying for hours. If the day turned out to be different than he had expected, if there were visitors, if he was bullied or if some other event that was incomprehensible to him. Emotions were hard to understand, let alone talk about. Now, fifteen years later, he leads a student team and is talking to the crème de la crème of the world of innovation. “I am quite proud of that,” says Dirk with a prudent smile on his face. He has learned many social rules in recent years, as he calls them. Whereas previously saying good morning to a classmate was still a bit too difficult, he now holds weekly discussions with potential customers and partners.

Daily schedule with stickers

Dirk’s parents played an essential role in his development. ” My two brothers and I were diagnosed with autism at an early age. It certainly wasn’t easy for my parents to raise three autistic kids.” The family was very structured. “We started with a whiteboard in the room where we used stickers to draw up the daily schedule for each family member. If something didn’t go as planned, one of us always freaked out,” Dirk explains. ” My parents patiently explained over and over again what exactly had changed, why it happened and what the new situation was. Meanwhile I am able to figure that out for myself and I’m much calmer as a result.”

Confusing and exhausting emotions

Because of everything he has learned in terms of social matters, he is now simply able to be a part of society. He studies, has friends and a relationship. “But everything costs me three times as much energy because of all the social rules in my head.” And emotions are still difficult to understand. “The biggest problems in my life have to do with emotions. Actually if you look at everything rationally, you hardly ever have a problem.” He mentions love as an example. “My girlfriend doesn’t always say what she wants, just like most women. That’s very confusing to me.”

These kinds of situations and insecurities are exhausting to him. “Autism is called a disability and it really is,” he says. “Although it’s definitely manageable. It’s different from being in a wheelchair, for instance. For me, there’s no need to adapt any infrastructure. I can solve a lot myself with the tricks I’ve learned.” His mother and the rest of his family are still very important as well. “It’s nice that it doesn’t matter when the tricks I learned sometimes don’t work out when I’m home. I can get absurdly angry here when something doesn’t work out and everyone still treats me normally.”

Not a patient

On the other hand, he also finds it annoying that people don’t see on the outside that he has difficulty with social interaction. “When you’re in a wheelchair, no one expects you to walk up and down stairs. Whereas everybody expects me to follow all the social rules.” He continues: “In fact, if I make a mistake in social settings or get angry because something isn’t working out, then people will remember that. Then they will never look at me in the same way again. I don’t want people to see me as a patient.”

Relatively quite a few autistic Eindhoven residents

The Eindhoven student is not the only one in Eindhoven who is on the autism spectrum. According to the most recent figures (2016) from the Dutch Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), 463 people per 100,000 inhabitants have been diagnosed with a pervasive developmental disorder in the South-East Brabant region. That is 3 ½ times as many as in the Amsterdam region.

Autism is difficult to measure. On the website of the Dutch Association for Autism it states that autism is actually a collective term for behavioral characteristics that indicate vulnerability in the areas of social interaction, communication, flexibility in thinking and acting along with the filtering and integration of information. A diagnosis is made on the basis of behavioral characteristics, not on the basis of measurable physical characteristics. The table cited above only includes people who were treated for their condition during the year under review.

Strong analytical thinking skills

For many years research has been conducted into the high number of people with autism in and around Eindhoven. The last major research was done in 2011 at the University of Cambridge. Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, who carried out the research, suggested several possible explanations for this high number in his summary. He pointed out that there are plenty of jobs in Eindhoven where analytical thinking plays a major role, for example within technical companies. This is a characteristic that people with autism frequently have.

He also mentions that autism is potentially hereditary. Although at the time he stated that more research is needed in order to officially establish this. The Dutch Autism Association’s website has a link to a study dating from 2019 that concluded that autism is 80% hereditary. This confirms Professor Baron-Cohen’s hypothesis.

Dirk is not surprised by this figure. He also cites the type of jobs found in Eindhoven as the most important reason. “Not only people from the region work there, but also people from abroad who qualify for the job descriptions and are therefore more likely to have a form of autism.” He emphasizes that there are far more people with ‘autistic traits’ than are reflected in the statistics. “Here at the university, there are plenty of people who have a lot of the typical characteristics but no official diagnosis,” says Dirk. “Consequently, you get a hotspot of people this way who all want to live in the exact same way, who want to virtually do the same thing every day, who want to be challenged technically all the time and who are a bit socially awkward”.

TU feels familiar

That’s also one of the reasons why he feels very much at home at TU/e Innovation Space. Student teams can work on their own products within this community. They are given proper supervision from the university, but the ability to experiment for themselves is also crucial. “There is much more understanding and respect for each other. People can handle it if you’re a bit socially less inclined and that’s compensated by being a bit more cerebral. Anyone can just say it if he or she doesn’t feel like being around a lot of people for a while or if he or she has had enough impulses for the day. Because of this, I dare to do and say a bit more.”

This way of thinking has a positive effect on his leadership in some cases. “If I have to answer a question or make a choice, I think about all of the possibilities and social rules that go with it. Because of all the experience and help that I have had, I can now do this pretty quickly. Whereas a ‘normal’ person has an answer right away, there’s an 18-sided process to that for me,” he laughs. “As team captain that makes it easy. It allows me to explain my decisions very well so that others can understand them better and more quickly.”

Shifting gears is a challenge

However, switching between different situations is still difficult. “When I’m working for Team CORE, I have to be business-like. And when I’m with my girlfriend, I have to be lovable and romantic. When I’m at a party with friends, I have to be spontaneous and funny. And these situations will come up at some point during a day in no time at all. Every gear shift feels like I’ve run a marathon, especially when the situations aren’t separated so strictly and several things happen all at once.”

A home, a tree and a pet

The student team is doing well in social, business and technological terms. They’re growing fast, have more and more partners in business and the technology can change the world. Despite the fame and the vast money that may lie ahead, Dirk’s main dream is ‘a home, a tree, a pet’. “The company will be ready at some point. Then it will be big enough to be able to function without me as the driving force. Then I just want to go to work and go home at five o’clock”, says Dirk. “A normal life sounds really great. For me, that goal is greater than what it would mean to most people to become Apple’s top executive and invent the new Google.”

“Normal people don’t appreciate normal life enough. When my girlfriend says ‘I love you’ to me, it’s an intense moment of happiness. I’ve actually learned how to love. I couldn’t do that when I was young. Every emotion felt bad and loving someone was a mixture of different feelings, that was impossible for me to understand. But now I can look into her eyes and genuinely mean it,” he says. “I think that marriage, if I’m lucky enough to have that, is going to be the greatest achievement of my life. That level of loving, those feelings, people, the fuss, the stress, the uncertainties of the promise to stay together your whole life and then be able to enjoy all of that. It seems like a challenge, but it’s a fantastic challenge.”

Redirecting your thoughts

“I still have moments when I’m deeply unhappy because I don’t understand people and I can’t manage to follow all the social rules. And that hurts me. Because of my autism and the subsequent bullying, there have been moments when I really wasn’t enjoying life anymore. Now I’m able to turn it around. If I had given in to those feelings of dispair, I would never have been able to set up the student team. Also, I would never have met the most wonderful girl in the world. I’d never have gone to university and been able to see the latest innovations every day as if that was the most normal thing in the world. Then I’d never have been able to do a lot of cool things either. I am very proud to have progressed from that crying little boy under the table to the person that I am now.”