Hilde De Clercq

About the author

Hilde De Clercq (5 November 1985) is a professional in the field of autism and at the same time, a mother of an adult with autism. This combination gives her a special perspective on autism, combining scientific knowledge with real life experience. This makes her a perfect interpreter of parents’ needs and interests.

De Clercq has a diploma in Philosophy and Literature at Ghent University. She succeeded Theo Peeters as director of the Opleidingscentrum Autisme in Antwerp. She is an international expert in training parents and professionals in a variety of themes (a.o. communication, collaboration, visual support, preparing adult age, autism thinking….). Nowadays she works — after a short interruption — again for the VVA (Vlaamse Vereniging Autisme, the parents’ association) and as a free-lance trainer of professionals in Belgium and abroad.

De Clercq is especially known for her in-depth knowledge of autism, seen through the lens of autism from direct experience. She knows better than anyone that autism must be understood from the inside, not from the outside. Her emphasis is on understanding the causes of stress-related problems. By understanding the causes (‘the different treatment of information’), she attempts to explain how to prevent problems (this is commonly known as ‘the iceberg-theory: the tip of the iceberg is just the symptom…).

She has published two books about the different conceptual development in autism. Both books have been translated into several languages. She is a well-known speaker at autism conferences in Belgium and abroad. Hilde De Clercq is an international associate editor of GAP (Good Autism Practice) published by the University of Birmingham and she has a TEACCH affiliation.

Autism from within

Autism from within. A handbook (Houtekiet, 2005) is intended as a manual and practical guide for carers, parents and probably also for young autistic people themselves. Hilde De Clercq gently guides the reader into the world of persons with autism by taking a look at their play behavior. Through their response and the anxieties and difficulties that may arise in fantasy play, role play, stories, dressing up and play acting you become acquainted with a whole range of issues: the triad, problems with Communication, Social Interaction and Imagination.

This is made yet clear in the second chapter, which concerns language and communication. An autistic child is very ‘literally’ aligned. However, the language that non-autistic persons use is very flexible, appealing to imagination and intuition, passing on ideas without words and is full of hidden communication. The question “Can you pass me the salt?” may be therefore logically answered with “Yes” by an autistic child, without it actually passing on the salt. You can therefore also imagine how such a child responds to “To beat about the bush”, “It is raining cats and dogs”, “Wipe your feet”. And how difficult it must be to understand what a person really means with “You really want an ice cream, don’t you?”

Ordinary children over-generalize: a chair is anything you sit on. Autistic children often lack generalization capacity: every object is different. There is that chair, but also that other one, or that stool, that seat. That’s why an autistic child can be helped, for example, by drawing up a word list. For example, “shoe” and all kinds of “shoes” and a list of what that entails, what they are used for. They must understand scientifically what others understand instinctively. They may think in black and white and have difficulties with the subtleties of language. They are visual thinkers: they often think in pictures, not in language. They find multi-track processing difficult. (For example: either listen or write.) They find it difficult to plan, to start something and also to end it before it is finished, or having to deviate from a familiar, learned process. They have difficulty in empathizing, with emotions and feelings.

For parents of autistic children, carers, people working with autistic persons, and family members it is therefore a continuous search, constant detective work and a puzzle to get to know feelings and position them. Every person with autism has his or her own knowledge system, a kind of personal communication system (non-universal) and comprehensible only to persons who know him/her well or want to do so.

The chapter that deals with sexuality and sexual training is an eye-opener in this area and as clear an illustration as possible of how difficult it can be to understand persons with autism precisely and to find the right attitude and solution. (Ranging from “Let sleeping dogs lie” to “learning self-protection”.)

Eating too, sleeping, potty training, independence, daily living skills are things that must be approached “differently”, because for every autistic child, every situation at a different place and every new circumstance is totally ‘different’. (It’s not because you eat nicely at home that you also do so at school. At Auntie X’s you behave totally differently than at Auntie Y’s. The No. 3 bus is not the No. 4. All these circumstances require new rules of behavior to be agreed, lists to be made, social stories to be written.

Autism from Within is a book that can in fact be a practical guide to carers and parents and anyone having to deal with autistic persons. It is packed with everyday life stories, full of wisdom, insight, hints, topical lists, practical tips, suggestions, “step-by-step” advice. It also appeals to the heart and the imagination, especially through the poems between the chapters and even more so through text fragments written by autistic persons that very appealingly bear witness to their world and the difficulties with which they have continuously to battle.

It is moreover not in the least a book that can be read only by those concerned but one of those books that read like a story. You are not frightened off by major theories. What Hilde De Clercq writes comes from enormous experience, strong empathy and a big heart, and can be read by anyone who simply wants to know more about autism and the problems that these people have to face. — V De Raeymaeker

Books by Hilde De Clercq