Theo Peeters

About the author

Theo Peeters (born 11 March 1943) is a Belgian neurolinguist who specialises in autism spectrum disorders. He is one of the world’s leading authorities in the field and his many books, training activities and stimulating talks around the world have shown him to be among the most knowledgeable and compassionate authorities on autism anywhere. He especially emphasises the importance of understanding the “culture of autism”, of empathising fully with individuals on the spectrum.

Peeters is the founder of the Opleidingscentrum Autisme (Centre for Training in Autism or OCA) in Antwerp, Belgium. He holds a degree in Philosophy and Literature (University of Louvain), and MA in Neurolinguistics (University of Brussels), MSc in Human Communications (University of London) and is affiliated to TEACCH, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

He was in charge of training professionals in the 1985 Educational Experiment in Autism sponsored by the Flemish Ministry of Education. He was also responsible for the Flemish-Russian project on autism, the Flemish-South African project, the Flemish-Polish Autism project and more. He is currently Associate Editor of Good Autism Practice edited by Glenys Jones and Hugh Morgan in partnership with the University of Birmingham. Peeters’ books on autism include Talking About Autism (1980),  Autism: From Theoretical Understanding to Educational Intervention (1994) and Autism: Medical and Educational Aspects (1998), in collaboration with Professor Christopher Gillberg.

A journey to the heart of autism

To talk to Theo Peeters is to try to understand autism from a humanistic perspective and to discover his passion for the study of this condition. As Claudia Pita, one of the attendees at their talks in Bogota says: “This man has not only the wisdom that comes with age of working around a theme, but also the knowledge that allows constant contact, even friendship, with autistic people. His passion, however, does not prevent him from talking objectively and in depth on the subject.

The origins of his humanistic views on autism can be found in his background in literature and philosophy: “When I finished my studies in literature I began to teach at an art school, my students were sculptors, painters and artists in general. I became interested in the relationship between psychosis and creation. At the same time, I wrote news stories for radio and the press on psychiatry, psychosis and art, among other topics. Then I began to wonder about the origin of psychosis, I wanted to know the cause, whether it was environmental or an abnormality in the brain, a concern that led me to study neurolinguistics. During this time my teacher spoke of autism as a type of childhood psychosis caused by the mothers, about which I had grave doubts. At that time I was invited to a press conference for parents of children with psychosis and when I talked to the mothers I felt it was a great injustice to blame them for this situation, when they were more motivated than anyone else to find solutions for their children.”

Not only was it this “thirst for justice” that led him to become interested in autism, but also the theme of loneliness. As recorded in his dialogue for the Spectator: “By continuing my studies in London and starting to read about autism I became aware of the subject of solitude, one of the topics that interested me in literature. But the loneliness of autism is very different from that in literature. When one reads, for example, Samuel Beckett, one can understand his loneliness, while the solitude of autism is less easily understood. It is the loneliness of living in a world that no one else understands, it is a cognitive solitude of thought. For me studying autism was like studying literature, my motivation from the beginning was to understand what was wrong with these children, but from within.”

To penetrate autism it is not enough to study just theory. You need to see it in practice, to listen to parents, who are the most important actors in this work and who really understand their children. It is necessary to have a humble attitude and the courage to recognize that while it is true that autism has been studied, it is not fully understood, because each case is unique. If you’ve seen one person with autism you’ve seen one person with autism, you have not seen autism. This attitude of humility allows Peeters, after completing his studies in London, and then enrolling in the TEACCH program in North Carolina, to work with children, young people and parents, and has let him into the mysterious world of autism, an attitude which is also evident when you hear from his autistic friends.

Autistic people are visual thinkers

To understand autism is to go beyond the symptoms, to see below the tip of the iceberg, to observe what is really important, what is inside. It is to understand, for example, that behavioural problems are related to communication, in understanding social and sensory perception and imagination. It is to recognise that repetitive actions do not always correspond to obsessive behaviour, but that many are functional. Sometimes, as one of his friends explained to him “I wanted to be accepted as a normal person, and I tried many things, each of which was received in a negative way, which made me feel like a zero. The only way to console myself was to compulsively touch wooden objects, which was seen as negative and obsessive behaviour, when in fact it was my only way of consolation.”

Having a thorough knowledge of autism involves making environmental adaptations, providing an education that is predictable in time and space, an inclusive education, in which people with autism have the same rights as others and with programs that are individualised and adapted to them. “To teach the blind you don’t use the same teaching strategy you would use with deaf people. Yet with autism, we try to teach them in the same way we teach so-called ‘normal’ people. Most people with autism are visual thinkers, so their education should be visual. They are perceptive thinkers, yet they have problems with conceptualisation, meaning that if they understand something in a one context, it does not follow that they will be able to apply it to another: they fail to generalise. Some autistic high performers can learn to build concepts, but fail to get past the difficulty of social interaction. This is the most difficult part of development: in an arguably exaggerated way people with autism lack social instincts.”

The neurodiversity movement

Understanding autism from within is to understand that there is no cure. OK, as Peeters says, it is not a disease, but you wonder what would have happened if Leo Kanner and Hans Asperger, the “Fathers” of autism, had been anthropologists? The neurodiversity movement believes that to help a person with autism from a social viewpoint is understandable. If a brain works differently it does not mean you have a disease, and this difference can be a strength. This statement suggests the possibility of a revolution in education for people with autism, one where they can develop their own interests and potential and eliminate the idea that eventually they will be “normal”. A person with autism will never be ‘normal’, a word that Theo Peeters considers quite cruel. People with autism are born with this condition, and so-called ‘normal’ people have no right to change them. What is needed is to build a bridge at whose centre you find people with autism along side the neurotypical, so-called “normal” people, with a mutual understanding of their own limits.

To listen to Theo Peeters talk about autism is, in one way or another, to receive an ethics lesson about life, as noted Jazbleidi Nunez. “During the conference I realized that we need to build a culture of respect for each other, where one does not see autistic children as people with a disability or a limitation, but as beings who demand from their family, school and community inclusion, participation, respect, understanding and appreciation of the diversity of their individuality.”

Regarding the institutional role he says: “I understand that the school was wrong to think it had the greatest responsibility in the handling of cases of autism and asperger, where you take them to therapy and psychologists. I realized that the lead management in these cases has to be the family, which has components that surpass us all: love, day to day life, and the link to the routines and behaviours of this life and the school should not be disconnected from this but should allow the strategies families develop to be as funtional, valid and legitimate to make a difference in these cases.

Claudia Camacho – El Espectador