Photo: Jesper Scheel

My colleague calls me Rainwoman

Tuesday 14 Aug 18
by Tom Nervil


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Ellen Vallentin Christiansen is autistic and works as a graphic designer at DTU Nanotech. When she received her diagnosis ten years ago, she chose the job at DTU over early retirement.

By virtue of her graphic competences and a focused work ethic, Ellen Vallentin Christiansen achieves excellent results in her 15-hour working week. The reason her working week is limited to 15 hours is due to the fact that Ellen is autistic and in a flexi job.

Despite enjoying social interaction with her colleagues, Ellen spends most of her time interpreting what is going on around her. This also explains why spending time with other members of the team, department colleagues, or people in the canteen sometimes leaves her feeling drained.

“So I prefer to focus on my work while I’m here,” she says.

"My challenge is that I can’t separate things. If an obstacle gets in my way, everything grinds to a halt until the challenge is resolved."
Ellen Vallentin Christiansen

Ellen took up employment with DTU Nanotech ten years ago after completing an education as a teacher—working in that capacity for two years.

“After two years in full-time employment I was completely burned out, the house was a mess, and the accumulation of many years’ challenges culminated in a state of chaos. Following several interviews and psychiatric tests, I was diagnosed with autism,” Ellen explains.

“I was given the choice of taking early retirement—which my caseworker recommended—or try a part-time flexi job.”

The recruitment consultants discovered that Ellen has a special interest in creative solutions combined with the ability to discern patterns and learn computer programs. This led to a three-month internship where she worked with illustrations and graphic layout. It proved a useful combination.

DTU a good match

“After feeling out of sorts and in the wrong pigeonhole for many years, I was suddenly very moved by the warm reception I received at DTU Nanotech. While I worked on my new self-perception and my challenges on the home front, I received on-the-job graphic design training from my colleague Jesper able at a pace I could manage.”  

Many people associate autism with being ‘a human calculator’, the ability to make sense of complex data, remembering the position of playing cards and the like. Such unique abilities are known as savant syndrome, but probably only about ten per cent of all autists have these abilities,

“I’m not very good at counting matchsticks, for example,” says Ellen. Many autistic people without savant syndrome nonetheless possess abilities in methodology, pattern recognition or pattern error, and a fundamental sense for detail.

“My colleague Jesper Scheel bears much of the credit for making me feel like an accepted and valuable member of staff at DTU Nanotech. He has often said—we’re all equals here—and with a twinkle in his eye, he called me ‘Rainwoman’. A nickname I adopted and which I use in my blogs and talks, where I try to increase awareness of what autism also can be.”

A prize for her dedication

Precisely Ellen’s efforts in drawing attention to the plight of autistic parents—which according to Autism Denmark is a neglected group—resulted in Ellen being awarded the Autism Award 2018 on 23 April.

“I’m very honoured to have received this award and feel that it shows how far I’ve come in my personal development in the ten years since I started at DTU,” concludes Ellen.

“My colleagues Nanna and Jesper—but also the other employees in the administration—have created one of the best working environments I can imagine for someone suffering from autism spectrum disorder. DTU is great at creating an inclusive atmosphere for staff in flexi jobs and the administrative staff must also embrace the many different cultures to accommodate the needs of the many foreign students at DTU,” says Ellen.

“Among the employee profiles—the researchers and the students—there are also many who in a less obvious form or other, share similarities with those of us with autism spectrum disorder. The fact that I’m among people who think and act in ways similar to my own makes me feel more secure and understood.”

It takes effort

When you suffer from autism spectrum disorder, you have a greatly reduced stress threshold due to sensory integration dysfunction—e.g. increased light and sound sensitivity, the inability to read social contexts, and difficulties in dealing with situations where you have to make decisions based on emotion, intuition, and personal experience.

“My challenge is that I can’t separate things. If an obstacle gets in my way, everything grinds to a halt until the challenge is resolved,” she explains.

“I’m fragile and need help finding solutions when everyday things go awry. But at the same time I’m an incredibly loyal and persistent employee, which is characteristic of people with autism. If we are treated well and given the right conditions, we give back tenfold—especially during the good periods. Support during the challenging periods is essential in order for many autistic people to cope with the labour market. This also applies to me,” says Ellen.

“Holistic action is needed to successfully integrate people with autism into a workplace.”


Photo: Jesper Scheel

Ellen Vallentin Christiansen is 40 years old. She lives in Nørrebro with her boyfriend Ole and their four-year-old daughter, Nova.

2018: Received the Autism Award from Autism Denmark for her efforts in relation to autistic parents

2015: Lecturer on autism

2008: Internship and later flex jobs as graphic illustrator at DTU Nanotech

2008: Diagnosed with autism

2007: Sick leave and clarification of her job situation

2005: Employed as an educator at an observation and treatment home for 0-6-year-olds

2001-2005: Educated educator at UCC

2000–2001: Education assistant, Skødstrup, Denmark

1998–2000: Brazilian studies at Aarhus University

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