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Who understands you better than the person who has autism herself?
My name is Heidi
Vormer and I was diagnosed with autism when I was 21 years old. Getting such
diagnosis at this age is quite late; not just for me but for anybody. My family
and I had always felt that I was different ever since I was a kid. I struggled
with practically every aspect of my life without knowing the root of the cause.
Since I was 12 years old, I had been going to social workers, consultants, psychiatrists, and I even underwent quite a number of tests to find out what was wrong with me. But the results of the tests were always the same: “She has trouble coping with her parents’ divorce.” Deep inside me, I felt that this was not accurate. When I finally got diagnosed with autism years later, I felt incredibly relieved. I had spent my whole life wondering what was wrong with me, and this fact had had a major impact on my self esteem. I finally knew what it was, and I also learned that I was not the only one.
The first time I painstakingly realized there was something different about me was when I started elementary school. I remember seeing all the other kids around me playing, laughing, talking and socializing. They were interacting with each other in a very natural and spontaneous way. I, on the other hand, felt my whole world was inside my own head. I didn’t know how to interact at all. I didn’t know how to socialize, how to communicate, or how to behave. I didn’t understand anything of the whole world around me.
I wanted to fit in, of course. So, I decided to study how the other kids behaved. I paid heed and memorized their words, their behaviour, their posture, language, everything. Having a photographic memory helped me a lot, although I didn’t understand anything of what I was memorizing. I managed to learn by heart all their actions and their responses, and then I applied these in similar situations. This new survival strategy helped quite a bit with my fitting in; nobody knew that I had problems communicating and interacting with others. Nonetheless, my responses were quite limited. Every time a question or situation was completely unfamiliar to me, I didn’t know what to do or what to say. But on a social level, among other kids, I seemed to do quite fine with my strategy.
Attending school was a different story. I didn’t understand the language of the teachers or what was written in books. In fact, I was seldom able to hear the teacher or to concentrate on reading. Besides the teacher’s voice, I also heard a cacophony of sounds: kids whispering in the back of the room, the teacher next door, talking in her classroom, cars outside, a dog barking, people riding their bikes, kids talking in the schoolyard and the sounds of the ventilation system. And all those sounds came in equally loud. They were all competing for first place. For me it was just impossible to filter the teacher’s voice out of all those other noises, and due to this, I often left school with failing grades.
My post elementary school years were even worse. My ‘study and copy’ strategy didn’t work with older students and I didn’t fit in at all. I was bullied and beaten up every single day, not just by a few bullies, but by large groups of students. As if this wasn’t enough, I also struggled with my schoolwork. Since the schools were a lot bigger than elementary school, there were also a lot more noises and many other distractions. It was just impossible to really hear the teacher or to concentrate reading a book. Besides that, I always took language extremely literally, so when I did hear the teacher I often misunderstood everything that was said. And every time I tried to answer a question or found the courage to say something, my classmates laughed and thus, making the teachers angry. Nonetheless, I managed to bring home acceptable grades. Whenever we had a test for a class like geography or history, we always had to study many chapters filled with what seemed never-ending text that I just didn’t understand. So I decided to memorize every single page, the page numbers, layout, number of columns, pictures, and every single word without really comprehending the text. During the test, when a term or a name came up, I knew exactly on which page number it was located and in which column. I knew all the other words and pictures around it. I had an image of each page in my mind; and this way, I managed to get an acceptable grade.
Throughout the years, I thought of many tricks like this to get myself through situations and to make my days manageable. I kept studying people. I watched TV and the same movies over and over again to learn people’s behaviour, language and customs. Even though at first it was all just copied when I was communicating or interacting, I slowly made it my own until I was confident enough to try to find my own words and language. I learned a lot about my difficulties as well as my strengths. I used these strengths to make up for my difficulties. I went from being a frightened person who didn’t understand any language to a person who is confident because of her self-knowledge; someone who knows what she needs to manage her life. At this point in my life, I am ready to share my story and educate people about autism. I want to bequeath what I have learned to autistic people and their families. I want my story to build bridges among autistic people and everyone who comes in contact with them.
I emigrated from the Netherlands to Montreal in 2013 to start a new life with my North American boyfriend; we’re happy to be here together. Six months ago, I started my own autism consulting services here. Last year I gave a presentation, which was very well-received, at Giant Steps, a school for autistic students. I’ve also had a few clients whom I’ve helped pursue a more pleasant and manageable life. People can contact me for help, information, advice, or a presentation about autism. I can provide autistic people and their families with understanding, recognition, advice, a lending ear and empower them with some insight from my own perspective and experiences. By observing and recognizing the cause of problems and issues, I can offer solutions and ways to improve your situation and your life.
My process varies from person to person. For instance, parents and teachers come across certain behavioural problems they don’t understand. They can’t identify with a child that behaves this way, and they don’t know how to better the situation. Listening to people who ask me for help or advice to discern their problem is my priority. Often, a visit to their home or school is useful. I learn a lot about their situation by observing: how they interact with the child, how they talk to their child, and what their home looks like, their furniture and how their home is arranged. I look at every tiny detail because the tiniest detail can be the cause of certain issues. For instance, when a living room is in disarray or arranged in a chaotic way, a child with autism can’t find his or her element or relax. Language is another important factor -- the clear use of language and the way people talk to an autistic person are key elements. I visited one family where the mother talked to her autistic son quite often, but always when she was walking around in a rush. A person with autism is already so overwhelmed with details that if you talk to him while you’re passing by, he might not notice that you talking to him. Most people with autism also need very specific language. If you use words like ‘in a while’, ‘soon’, ‘shortly’, ‘a little bit’, ‘later’, this doesn’t mean anything to an autistic person. It’ll just create confusion. Furthermore, jokes and sarcasm will have the same negative effect. People with autism need very specific language. These are just examples, though. Every family and every person with autism is different. And they all need a different and unique approach. After I visit a family, I might not be able to give them advice on the spot or provide them with immediate information. I always have to give my brain some time to process what I have seen so that I can look at it from my own perspective. It usually takes me a day or two after the initial visit for me to write an email with a lot of information, more questions, and advice, and then we can move on from there.
Besides being an autism consultant, I’m also an artist. I specialize in photorealistic drawings of people, animals, trees, houses, and everything else I find interesting. Due to my autism, I see the whole world in tiny little details. My drawings tend to be this way, too. A few months ago, I was invited by an international art organisation called ‘RAW Natural Born Artists’ to exhibit my artwork at their showcase here in Montreal. Moreover, I’ve recently started an online shop on Fine Art America where people can buy prints of my drawings.
For me the whole world is a chaotic place. When I’m out in public, I have to focus on so much information at once. And all those details compete for first place. This can be extremely exhausting. When I’m working on a drawing, I only have to focus on one thing: the details of my drawing. This is one of the reasons why I love drawing. Many people ask me how I make my drawings look so realistic. I always tell them that when I’m working on the drawing of an elephant, let’s say, I don’t try to draw an elephant. When I’m drawing its skin, I don’t try to draw its skin. I look at details and I draw the details. And all those details will make up the skin together.
Since moving to Montreal there’s been an amazing amount of interest in my art that just keeps growing. Prints of my artwork are now available for purchase on Fine Art America.
For more of my artwork, visit my website: www.remrovsartwork.com
If you’re interested in learning more about my services as an autism consultant, you can visit my other website:
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