Getting a PhD with an autistic brain

Supervisor Paul Van den Hof learned what was going on in Lizan's head

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Getting a PhD with an autistic brain

Every day, PhD candidates at TU/e receive their degrees after successfully defending their dissertations. But there is a story behind every thesis, says professor Paul van den Hof. The dissertation of his last PhD candidate – Van den Hof will deliver his valedictory lecture in a few weeks – is a very special one indeed. Because despite her autism, Lizan Kivits was awarded her PhD on Thursday, February 22, at the department of Electrical Engineering.

We’re sitting at the table in the office of Paul Van den Hof, professor in the Control Systems group at the Department of Electrical Engineering. Seven years ago, his PhD candidate Lizan Kivits wouldn’t have been able to sit here as calmly as she is today. Paul’s bookcase proved to be a real mind-breaker, says Lizan. “All those different dissertations and books. Varying in size, font, and all sorts of colors mixed together. It caused chaos in my mind. All I could do was try to organize things in my head, making it impossible to keep my attention on a conversation.”

As of a week ago, Lizan may call herself a doctor. Her defense was conducted with much conviction, Van den Hof tells us afterwards. “She even constantly engaged with the audience and the committee members. All credit to her.” It is a stark contrast to how things were seven years ago. Her PhD supervisor and mentor Paul Van den Hof had some doubts when Lizan first came to him for a research project meeting, he stresses. “The conversation didn’t flow very smoothly; I found it difficult to gauge her. However, content-wise, I did notice that she had outstanding capabilities.” What he didn’t know at the time is that Lizan has autism.

Different, but not wanting to be different

It was in secondary school that Lizan began to realize more and more that she was “different” from her classmates. “I didn’t understand why two passing teachers in an empty hallway would say “Hi!” to each other. That was an eye-opener for me. It turned out that communication is much more than just asking for help when you have a question you really can’t figure out. And even then, I set the bar very high for myself. I didn’t talk much and preferred to do things alone, but I was still part of the class.” It takes a lot of energy for her to socially keep up in a world she often doesn’t understand. Around the age of 16, she was diagnosed with autism; through hard work she obtained her pre-university education (VWO) diploma. She soon realized that she wanted to pursue a technical degree. “I checked out various programs, but when I attended the “Systems” lecture during one of the experience days at the Department of Electrical Engineering, I was absolutely sold. Using a formula to describe all kinds of different systems, I thought that was wonderful.”

“A real go-getter who doesn’t want to be different at all,” is how Paul describes Lizan in a few words. The two of them have built a special bond along the way. Even during our conversation, he finds ways to slow Lizan down very naturally every now and then, allowing her mind to relax after a particularly difficult question. “I soon got the impression that Lizan could pick up research that others around here could not. A great opportunity. But I was also faced with a difficult decision once I learned about her background. Would Lizan be able to handle a PhD track, and just as importantly, would I be able to supervise her? I give my PhD candidates lots of space, I also need that myself in order to do a good job. How could I incorporate a tight schedule and clear agreements into my busy schedule, and did I feel comfortable with that?”

Shower faucet

They decide on a trial period of a little under a year, to see if an actual PhD track is feasible. At first, it was mostly a lot of talking to learn from each other, says Paul. “We all know the characteristic traits of autism. But everyone is different, even if you have autism. In order to provide Lizan with a safe environment, I felt it was important to know what’s going on in her head.”

But everyone is different, even if you have autism.

Paul Van den Hof
professor Control Systems

Lizan tells him about the filter that is missing in her brain. That this makes it difficult for her to control that brain in certain situations because it is so busy processing stimuli. And that she literally shuts down when there are too many stimuli because she has no brain capacity left to function properly. That over-stimulation can occur on many different levels, Lizan explains. “Once, I was in the shower for hours. The sound of the water hitting the shower floor was too distracting, which meant I had to think long and hard about every next move. Now, I turn off the faucet when it becomes too much.”

Exercising during lunch

In addition to providing her with a place to retreat in the form of a meeting room and a part-time appointment, Paul helps her with her communication skills. “Her mind would go into overdrive whenever someone asked her ‘Hey Lizan, how are you?’ She would panic. What do they mean by that, what should I answer? We tried to improve communication step by step. Also in the group, to get to know each other and to learn how best to interact. And we had a few conversations with the Regional Autism Center, which guides Lizan.”

All this pays off. In a calm environment and with clear agreements, Lizan starts to perform better and better. In between, she uses her passion judo to blow off steam, and every day around lunchtime, she can be found in the gym at the SSC. Paul is impressed with her work. Next on the agenda is the annual Benelux conference in Soesterberg, where PhD candidates present their work. “At the start of her trial period, I had discussed this with colleagues; we couldn't picture Lizan appearing before a large audience. Again, we started practicing step by step. It was a little scary and out of her comfort zone, but she gave an excellent presentation.” Lizan nods. “Especially the questions afterward were a big deal for me. When the questions are too open-ended, I start running around in circles in my head and I can’t make sense of things anymore.” Paul adds: “She then learned that presenting means interacting with your audience. Some time later, at the beginning of another presentation, she threw a question out to the audience herself. She was like a whole new person.”

When the questions are too open-ended, I start running around in circles in my head and I can’t make sense of things anymore.

Lizan Kivits
Broken lamp

And so, Lizan’s trial period is turned into a longer research trajectory; he doesn’t want to call it a PhD position yet. The department provides partial financial support. “We’ll see how it goes,” Paul keeps telling her. Writing a dissertation of her own still seems a long way off. But then, her first article is accepted for a conference in Stockholm; surprise all around when she announces her intention to present there herself. Stockholm is followed by Nice, and eventually even a conference in Mexico. “We used the same approach,” Paul explains. “A few weeks beforehand, we sat down together and sketched a detailed outline of what would happen on those days. An intensive process, especially when it was her first time traveling by plane. What happens at the airport, how does security work, what’s it like on the plane itself? Mexico was a full week, and there was a considerable time difference. We made clear agreements beforehand: I’m not there to hold your hand, but I’ll keep an eye on you.” He turns to Lizan for a moment. “Remember when you went to the hotel reception yourself to ask for another lamp? Lizan laughs. “I really wouldn’t have dared to do that before; it would’ve been too complicated. Even just getting a new notebook from the secretariat used to be a bridge too far. But the people around me noticed that I was becoming more and more free. After Mexico, I even went on vacation by myself for the first time.” According to Paul, this is also because Lizan is always pushing her boundaries and wants to learn how to handle certain social limitations. “You have a very good understanding of your situation, and that means you also have an idea of how that works for others. By taking a critical look at yourself, you’ve allowed yourself to move forward tremendously.”


It has been an amazing journey, they both agree. Of course, there were some setbacks along the way. On several occasions, Lizan was forced to take a step back because she couldn’t manage her energy levels well. For example, when she got bogged down in her research approach. Or when the transition to assisted living asked too much of her; and the readjustment after the Covid-19 period. But also smaller obstacles, like the email from the secretariat to the whole group about the upcoming move and new room arrangements, which led to utter chaos in Lizan’s mind. And every single time, Lizan and Paul worked out together how to overcome these obstacles.

Paul: “Lizan is very proud of what she has achieved now, but so am I. Seeing her personal and professional growth has been truly remarkable. It gives an incredible sense of satisfaction. This was absolutely not predicted beforehand, but the right environment can have very positive results.” And it also gave him new insights, Paul confesses. “Due to the absence of the standard obligations within a PhD project, we were able to work in a very relaxed manner, and in many ways that was liberating. The university is increasingly operating as a project organization with deadlines and deliverables – often at the behest of industrial partners – and as a result, we sometimes risk losing sight of our task to educate scientists.”

It's been an amazing journey. Lizan is very proud of what she has achieved now, but so am I.

Paul Van den Hof
professor Control Systems
Pop out

Then, with shining eyes, Lizan reaches for her dissertation. The bright colors on the front cover – symmetrical yellow and green, her favorite colors – were carefully considered. “Every time I sat at the table with Paul, all the information from that bookcase would hit me. That was until I knew exactly what the bookcase looked like. And I knew: after that long row of dark blues and blacks, the final dissertation on his shelf should have a color that really pops out.”

But now that Paul is slowly tidying up his room – he will give his valedictory lecture in April and will be sharing his room with colleagues – the bookcase is no longer what it used to be. Fortunately, he still has the drawing Lizan gave him when handing over her thesis. It will serve as a long-lasting reminder of this adventure and all the other stories behind all those covers. 

PhD in the picture

When you look at a lithography machine or an electricity network from above, you notice the complex interactions within the networks. But how can you describe something like that in a clear way? Lizan Kivits simplified such a physical network into separate, symmetrical elements. The modeling method she developed through this forms the basis of a potential new diagnostic tool for ASML’s chip machines, Lizan explains. “When alarm bells go off during the production process, it’s often difficult to identify the error due to the complexity of the machine. This machine consists of all sorts of components that are interconnected, sometimes through subsystems. By describing such a network in separate systems, while also taking the interaction structure into account, it should be possible in the future to quickly and accurately pinpoint the location of a machine error.” The symmetric approach Lizan used is now generally considered a new standard for beginning researchers in their department, Lizan says excitedly.
And where will her own trajectory lead now that she has her PhD? Together with her PhD supervisor Paul Van den Hof, she received support from a job coach two years ago. Paul: “Lizan has managed to fight her way through it all and forge her own path. With a diagnosis, but without an official status from the UWV (Employee Insurance Agency). Therefore, her trajectory may seem effortless to the outside world, which can be frustrating. Because she can’t compete fairly with other candidates for a regular job at a company.” Lizan wants to continue with research, preferably in the field of physical networks. Thanks to her exceptional work, she has nevertheless received multiple offers for a follow-up position. On the TU/e campus, which is very pleasant for her daily routine, she smiles. “There have already been enough changes.”

Autism, what can TU/e do for you?

Education and Student Affairs (ESA) receives a lot of requests for help from students with some form of autism, says TU/e student psychologist Aryan Neele. They advise prospective students who have an autism diagnosis to specify this on their application; this can also be listed as a “functional impairment”. This way, a guidance process can be initiated well before the start of the academic year, which includes the relevant academic advisor and student counselor.

But it is also possible for students, with or without a diagnosis, to encounter limitations during the course of their studies as a result of a neurodivergent brain. Neele: “It’s very important to offer tailored guidance. Autism is a spectrum disorder, which can manifest differently in everyone. So every student can be struggling with different problems.“
For a complete overview of possible guidance and study assistance, Neele refers to the “Studying with autism” pages in the education guide.

Students with (suspected) autism can easily approach ESA for an individual counseling program with one of the student psychologists.
“Where necessary, we can refer to external counselors, we are mainly there for study-related issues. But in a broader perspective, a life coach, for example, can be very valuable.”

On a practical level, ESA offers various training sessions, such as the “SFC 29 - Planning and setting goals” course, specifically designed for students with autism or AD(H)D. For special studying arrangements, such as a low-stimulus room or a customized study program, students can contact the academic advisor or student counselor.

TU/e has separate psychologists for PhD and PdEng candidates; more information can be found here.

In addition, Neele emphasizes that ESA’s student psychologists are also there for TU/e employees. “We are happy to help and can, for example, organize a themed session at a research department or study association. Employees supervising a student with autism can certainly come to us for help. Our goal is to provide the right tools for an optimal working environment.”

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