On November 14th we presented our third Passwerk Lifetime Achievement Award (PLAA). This time, the laureate was Peter Vermeulen. You can learn more about Peter in the interview below. For the first time, the award ceremony took place in De Ark, a location on the water, near the Antwerp port house. We welcomed around eighty guests that evening.
The official certificate was issued by the chair of our board of directors, Kristiene Reyniers. Cas Raaijmakers, author of Peter's biography, explained how it came about. Peter Vermeulen finally took the floor himself and renamed the abbreviation PLAA to 'Passwerk Lifetime Encouragement Award'. He clearly has no intention of stopping yet!
Below is the interview with Peter and an impression of the celebration.
During the past period you had several conversations with Cas Raaijmakers, the author of your biography that was written on the occasion of this third PLAA. How were these conversations?
They were very pleasant. Cas is a talented man. His questions were a bit confronting at times. He held a mirror up to me. But it also allowed me to discover things about myself that I had forgotten (or repressed?). What I admire about Cas is that he showed a sincere curiosity to get to know the man behind the name 'Peter Vermeulen'. We also had a wonderful dinner together.
Did you want to impart a specific message in your biography?
I wasn't really trying to impart a message. I merely gave in to Cas's plan. But I have shown myself to be vulnerable and by doing so I wanted to show that I too am a human being. One of the things that happens when you become more well-known is that people only see someone's successes and not that he or she also struggles with the worries that occur in everyday life.
Is this your first award? How do you feel about it?
I thought this was my first award until it became clear in conversations with Cas that I had already received an award before my career started. I had completely forgotten. When I graduated from the "Instituut voor Gezinswetenschappen" (Institute for Family Sciences) in 1985, a study that I combined with my training as a pedagogue, I was awarded the Prof. Schockaert award for the most outstanding thesis. Apparently, I was the first person in Flanders to highlight the phenomenon of parental abuse.
Of course, the current award is much more meaningful to me. It is a great recognition for the many efforts I have made in the field of autism.
Who in the world of autism have been great inspirations for you?
There have been many. But to name a few: Professor Gary Mesibov of TEACCH, who I trained with in 1987. I gave a full-day course in Kent together with Gary two years ago, and although he has been retired for a long time, I learned a lot from him that day. We talked all evening in the pub. It was great!
And Theo Peeters, of course. It was he who brought TEACCH and Gary to Flanders. Theo paved the way for a better understanding and knowledge of autism in Flanders.
Not to mention: my colleagues from the very beginning at Vlaamse Vereniging Autisme (the Flemish Autism Association): Dirk, Lut, Moniek, Det, Monica, Cis... Although we were all a bit of a one-eyed king in the land of the blind at the time, I think we inspired each other and together we built a better world for people with autism.
Kristiene Reyniers hands over the certificate to Peter Vermeulen.
Are there any particular people you think should win this PLAA at some point?
Well, the people I just mentioned. Cis has already won it. But I think that the homeworkers from the very beginning, we're talking about the early eighties, each deserve a PLAA: Det, Dirk, Moniek and Lut. Let's not forget: that small club was the foundation of what is now the large network of home support, but also for the magazine "Autisme" and the information centre.
Also the parents from the very beginning. After all, all autism initiatives in Flanders have always been started by parents or they were at least involved in them.
What do you think of the final result of your biography?
I'm quite proud of it, although I still believe that my life story is far from over. I'm also looking forward to a lot of people asking about it.
Your name will be immortalised by your biography, the memorial plaque, the room in the Passwerk office that now bears your name. How does that feel?
I do hope that it will be 'immortalised' because I hope Passwerk will continue to exist for at least another century! I'm afraid that within a century many people will wonder who that Vermeulen from the memorial plaque was. And I also hope that if people don't get through Passwerk's assessment tests, they won't link this to my name on the door of the room...
Is there still anything you would like to achieve within your field of work?
Yes, after all these years of focusing on what makes autism so specific and so special, from now on I would like to focus on what people with and without autism have in common; what connects them.
Do you have any advice for parents of a child or adolescent with autism?
There is too much to mention, but maybe especially this: autism—however important a diagnosis may be—is only one of the many labels that characterise your child. Get to know the autism, but don't make it more than it is. Also see all the other labels your child has, especially the positive ones: their qualities, strengths and interests. And don't forget that, in the end, only one label is the most important: the name you chose for your child.
What do you think is the biggest misunderstanding about autism?
That people with autism have less to offer society than people without autism. But also that people with autism have no empathy, cannot be flexible and always have a good eye for detail. In short: the misunderstandings are mainly caused by stereotypical one-liners about autism.
Is the inclusion of people with autism an important goal for you? How can we achieve that inclusion?
Inclusion is the most important thing! I can't imagine that people would question inclusion because that would mean that those people would choose exclusion. There are many things needed for inclusion, but it starts with accepting (neuro)diversity and solidarity with people who are 'different'. And then seeing how we can give 'being different' a full place in our society.
Are there any political or policy optimisations required?
As far as I am concerned, the most important thing is to move away from the purely medical model of looking at a disability (a deficit model) to a citizenship model: see people with disabilities primarily as citizens with the same rights and obligations as everyone else.
Would you like to give the readers a message?
Yes, be critical of information about autism. Especially on social media, the internet and the mainstream media. Check the facts, look for the sources. Unfortunately, with digitisation, fake news about autism has also increased.
Do you want to thank anyone in particular for what you've accomplished?
No, no one in particular, as I wrote in my afterword in the biography: I have become who I am thanks to everyone who's crossed my path. I want to thank everyone. The award only has my name on it, but it should include all the names of all the people I've met, because they made me who I am today.
And of course, I would like to thank Passwerk for the award!
What has changed for the better in the past ten years?
I think the knowledge about autism has increased enormously over the past ten years and therefore also the willingness to make society more autism-friendly. I travel all over the world, so I can compare. And I have to say: although there's still a long way to go, we can be proud of what we've achieved in the field of autism in Flanders. There are many countries that cannot match the knowledge about autism that we have in Flanders.
Cas Raaijmakers explains the biography he has written about Peter Vermeulen.