Frank: We are here today with Heidi Vormer, a wonderful artist whose specialty is incredibly detailed photo-realistic pencil drawings. Heidi also happens to have autism, and is passionate about helping others through lecturing and counseling. Thank you so much Heidi for coming here today, and sharing your story with us.
Heidi: Well thank you too for inviting me.
Frank: I’d like to start out with a few easy questions to get us warmed up.
Frank: Tell us about where you were born.
Heidi: I was born in the Netherlands, in a small town called Appledoorn, it’s about an hour away from Amsterdam.
Frank: How different is Canada from the Netherlands where you grew up?
Heidi: The winters are less cold, but I still prefer the winters here in Canada, because in Netherlands it’s always really wet, really damp. It’s very difficult to dress against dampness than against cold.
Frank: Tell us a bit about your family.
Heidi: I have a mother, and father, but they were divorced when I was seven years old. And I have a twin brother who is five minutes older than me. I also have two step brothers and a step sister. They are kids from my dad’s wife.
Frank: How supportive was your twin brother?
Heidi: Well, yeah, he was quite supportive. When we were little, we were really close. We did everything together, and it was really nice. We played outside a lot together. When we were around sixteen years old, he started to get his own friends. I had difficulties making friends, so that was a difficult part. But, my mom, and brother, they were all quite supportive when I was little. I was diagnosed when I was 21, so before that I had a lot of problems, when we didn’t know what it caused.
Frank: What’s your favorite food?
Heidi: I really love Indian food the most, like butter chicken. There’s this Indian restaurant close by, and they have this lunch buffet: Yum!
Frank: (Joking) You’re making me hungry! (We both laugh). Your Artist’s name is Remrov, which is your last name spelled backwards. Is there a story behind how you came up with this name?
Heidi: Well, yeah actually. When I was little, and still, I like to talk to people by their names backwards.
Frank: Do you like movies?
Heidi: Oh I love movies, oh yeah, I’m crazy about movies. Since I was little already I always used to watch movies, and I watched the same movies over and over again.
Frank: What’s your favorite movie?
Heidi: I really love a movie called Duma. It’s a movie about a little boy who has a cheetah friend. He has this cheetah, and he has this really beautiful friendship with him.
Frank: Do you like music?
Heidi: I love music. I like all kinds of music. I like jazz, and some pop, some rock. But I don’t like all pop songs, just a few here and there. Lately I really especially like the band Passenger.
I really love to sing though by the way too. Just yesterday I bought a microphone this microphone, and started recording songs.
Frank: Really? Wow! You do not mention that anywhere on your website. Have you ever performed for anybody?
Heidi: Yeah, I performed in the Netherlands once. I used to perform more times when I was little, like at birthdays or for grandmother, but it was quite amateurish. Once at an art exhibition, where I was also exhibited my art there, and you could also sing songs if you wanted to. So, I sang “Forever Young”.
Frank: From what I’ve been reading, the effects of autism are as varied as our personalities. Would you agree with that?
Frank: How does your specific version of autism affect you?
Heidi: Mostly, when I was really little, I had troubles communicating. I didn’t understand language at all, so when people said something, I didn’t understand what they were saying. I was in regular school, so I did have to communicate and listen to what the teacher was saying, so I had a lot of troubles in school.
What I did was just copied everything everybody else said. Memorized everything everybody else said, and copied them it in similar situations. Also sounds, I have a lot of problems with sounds. I get overwhelmed easily with sensory overload.
Frank: With that in mind, having auditory issues, or problems with sound, it surprises me that you would like music so much.
Heidi: Yeah, well different kinds of music, so when people play loud music. Like really loud sounds, or very high pitch sounds.
Frank: So, you would probably not be a fan of Heavy Metal?
Heidi: (Laughing together with me) No, no. Yeah, high pitched sounds. Besides my autism, I also have extremely highly developed ears. I can hear sounds of frequencies that other people can’t hear. When I’m sitting on a bus, it’s not just one sound of the engine that I hear, but twenty different sounds, on a whole large scale of frequencies.
Frank: Wow! Aside from the copying of language/communication skills, what tricks do you use, for example, to deal with sound issues? Do you travel with ear plugs, or ear buds to listen to your favorite music instead of putting up with bus sounds?
Heidi: Yeah, that’s indeed what I do! When I travel on public transportation, I always listen to music on my MP3 player.
Frank: At what age do you think you did start understanding more?
Heidi: In think more in my twenties.
Frank: That recently?
Heidi: It was gradually that I really started to understand language, and that I knew how to express myself with words. But yeah, it was quite late that I was really confident enough to find my own words.
Frank: That is completely unimaginable to me. Now, you discussed a little bit about being bullied as a child. Tell us a little bit about that.
Heidi: When I was very little, like in elementary school, it was not really that bad, because I copied everybody, so they didn’t really see that I was different. I really copied them literally, without understanding what I was doing. I didn’t understand games, or anything but by copying everybody I fit in. But when middle school started, I was really bullied from the first day.
Frank: Really? By everyone, or just someone specific?
Heidi: It was almost the whole school. I can better name the people who didn’t bully me, than the people who did bully me.
Frank: Did you have at least one friend, during all this time of being bullied?
Heidi: There was this small group of students who didn’t fit in, but they also bullied each other, so it didn’t really work out all wonderful. So I did have a small group to hang out with, but it did not always end out all that well.
Frank: Did you tell your parents about the bullying?
Heidi: Oh yeah, I did tell my mom. She often went to school to talk, but the principal of the school said “Oh yeah, we’ll talk to the students, and that they shouldn’t bully Heidi anymore”.
But that only made it worse, then they started bullying me after school. They started to wait somewhere for me on my way home, and beat me up and things like that.
Frank: Wow, pardon my language, but people suck.
Heidi: Yeah, yeah.
Frank: Personally a lot people just have no clue.
Heidi: They have clue of what they do to each other.
Frank: They have no clue of what they do to each other, and no clue that wether you are a child or an adult, bullying is bullying. And it’s so wrong when they say “Children are children”. Well, no, not acceptable.
Heidi: No, because when you are in middle school, you’re twelve to sixteen years old, and you really know what you are doing.
Frank: Was the bullying physical or mental also?
Heidi: Yeah, also, both. Spitting, also they ruined my things, and they kicked me, beat me up and went quite far.
Frank: What’s the worst thing that they ever did to you?
Heidi: Well, I think I almost dislike the mental abuse than the physical, because it stays with you longer. The name calling, that you stink, or that you are not worth anything, and that you are ugly, or a freak. It seems to hurt longer than just a slap your face.
Frank: A lot of people would agree you. I certainly do. I certainly do. (Here, I take a deep breath). Wow, that’s some really tough stuff to deal with as a really young child.
Heidi: Yeah, yeah.
Frank So (getting choked up here), pardon me, while I collect myself. I’m a very emotional person, and identify with what you went through. And I’m sure a lot of people will.
Frank: You told a story about how you tried to express affection by kicking a ball into someone’s face. How old was that person you kicked the ball to?
Heidi: I think in his forties or so.
Frank: And how old were you when you did it?
Heidi: I think I was nine?
Frank: Did they get mad at you?
Heidi: Oh yeah!
Frank: So, they knew that it wasn’t and that you did it on purpose?
Heidi: Yeah, because I did it three times actually. And the third time I was really successful and hit him right in the face. I thought it was successful, because now I really thought that he understood that I liked him and that he got the message.
Frank: How much trouble did you get into? Were you punished, or did he just get mad at you tell you not to do that anymore?
Heidi: Well he got mad at me, and I had to sit in the changing rooms, because I was in track and field actually when that happened, and it was one of the trainers. I had to sit in the dressing rooms, and just think about what I just did.
Well, I was thinking about it, but I couldn’t understand it, because all I did in my opinion, was showing somebody that I like him, so, what’s wrong with that?
Frank: (Laughing) Did you get a chance to explain this?
Heidi: No, because I didn’t even understand, I didn’t even know how to put it in words.
Frank: You’ve thought on it obviously and realized. When did you realize that you were trying to express affection?
Heidi: I realized it at that moment, because I was really thinking of a way to express that I liked him, but I really didn’t know how.
Frank: So you discovered you had autism at the age of 21. Can you describe how you felt that day? Did you know what autism was?
Heidi: Yeah, yeah, yeah, I learned a bit about it.
Frank: How did you feel that day when they confirmed?
Heidi: I was very relieved, because my whole life I’ve been, wondering and trying to find out what was going on with me. Because I was struggling with every aspect of my life. And then you really start to doubt yourself and get low self-esteem, and you’re booted everywhere you go, you just don’t understand what is going on.
And then you hear that you have autism, and it has a name. Yeah, and you know that you are not the only one.
Frank: It was a relief rather than a burden.
Heidi: Yeah, yeah, but I was also a bit angry. Because since I was little, I had tests, people came to look at me, to find out what was going on with me. I had social workers and psychiatrists, and they all said “Oh, you just struggled with your parent’s divorce”.
Heidi: So that was the diagnosis before that, and I was quite angry.
Frank: How did your life change after that? You said it helped your self-esteem. What else happened after you made that discovery of having autism?
Heidi: I started to learn more about it. I also went to this clinic in the Netherlands for people with autism, where they could get training like socializing and things like that. The most important thing I learned there is that there are people of my own age who could be nice.
I was like, I came in there, and all those other guys and girls there with autism started asking me about my hobbies. Or they wanted to do something together with me. First I was felt a little bit “Are they fooling me, are they tricking me?” But then I found out they were really genuine, and that they liked me, and I never really had that before. So, I was really really surprised.
Frank: You started getting friends, like everybody else.
Heidi: Yeah! (Sounding very happy)
Frank: You are a strong strong person to have gone through that isolation and confusion at the same time. And to still today, be a positive, outgoing person you are now. I’m amazed and wish that more people who have less problems were like that.
Heidi: Oh thank you!
Frank: You’re welcome! What are some of the misconceptions of autism that really bug you?
Heidi: Some people think that when you have autism that you can’t communicate at all, or that you don’t understand anything. Like for example, when I go to the doctor, and my boyfriend goes with me. As soon as they find out I have autism, they start to ask all the questions to my boyfriend instead of me.
Frank: (At this point, I groan in commiseration).
Heidi: It’s really really weird.
Frank: Condescending! And they treat you like you’re a child maybe at that point? And he (the boyfriend) is your parent?
Heidi: Yeah, something like that! And one other thing, what I’ve been noticing lately is that when they know you have autism and are high-functioning or intelligent, they automatically think you have Asperger’s. But I have classic autism.
On many websites about autism I read, they say that people with classic autism that they often have low IQ but that’s not true. I have classic autism but I have an IQ of 150. And Temple Grandin for example has classic autism and she also is very intelligent.
Frank: Are there any other misconceptions, or things that people do once they discover that you have autism.
Heidi: Yeah, the treating like a little child. When I was in the clinic for autism, some of those trainers, the coaches, used to treat you like a four year old.
Frank: (Sounding incredulous) The autism specialists themselves treated you like a four year old? WOW!
Heidi: There were some who treated you like they were supposed to. Some were, oh my god! Yeah.
Frank: Besides your art, what are your passions?
Heidi: Well my passion is to share my story, to give presentations about autism, for parents of kids with autism, or at schools. I like to help people. Through the years I’ve learned a lot about autism and what helps me, and like to pass that on to other people with autism, their families and everybody else who wants to learn more.
Frank: Tell me about your little bird.
Heidi: Oh my little bird! He’s a love bird, it’s a dwarf parrot, and I’ve already had him for sixteen years.
Frank: How long do they live?
Heidi: Well, if you take really good care of them they can live for about thirty years.
Frank: No way! He seems really happy. I’ve seen pictures of him on your website, and that is a true friendship you seem to have.
Heidi: Oh yeah definitely!
Frank: Does he talk?
Heidi: No he does not talk, he’s into other things, and he does understand a lot of words.
Frank: What’s your bird’s name?
Frank: As in rice pilaf?
Heidi: Yes, he’s name after that, because on the day I adopted him, we ate pilaf rice. So I thought, sounds quite good actually.
Frank: How do you feel when you’re communing with him, when you’re bonding with him?
Heidi: Oh, he makes me very relaxed. And he’s actually also certified as my therapy help animal by an organization in the Netherlands. Yeah because in the Netherlands, it was so difficult to communicate with people, when I took him out on the street, people automatically started asking me questions. So then, I had to communicate back.
Frank: Okay, well, we’re getting near the end, and I’d really like to thank you for your time, for your openness and honesty. Do you have any last thoughts, anything you’d like to say to anybody right now?
Heidi: I really want to thank my boyfriend, because he’s just so sweet and supporting. He really makes me feel like I’m allowed to be who I am, and really loves me the way I am.
Frank: What is your boyfriend’s name?
Heidi: Edward Yankie.
Frank: How did you meet Edward, if you feel like sharing that information?
Heidi: Edward is an actor, and in the Netherlands I saw a few movies of him, and I thought, wow, he’s a really great actor, and really talented. Just for fun I wrote him a letter, and months later I received a letter back with his email address in it, so we started communicate over email.
And it was really nice, we connected on a lot of different topics, and we started to call each other, and then Ed soon came to visit me in the Netherlands.
Frank: How old were you the first time you wrote to him?
Heidi: I think I was thirty-one.
Frank: And he wrote back to you: That must been one heck of a letter that you wrote to him! What did you say to him?
Heidi: Well, I just told him I liked his acting, and I shared something about myself, about my autism, but also about my artwork.
Frank: So, “be yourself” is maybe one thing that is the message in all of this.
Heidi: Oh yeah, definitely.
Frank: Be yourself, and don’t be afraid to reach out.
Heidi: No indeed, and to follow your dreams!
Frank: Yes, I agree with that! That is truly is a beautiful love story and I hope it continues for a really long time!
Heidi: Well, I have one more thing about my bird. There’s one more thing that he also helps me with which is quite important. He works like a mirror to me. Sometimes I get upset, without realizing it, when I get stressed, my bird gets stressed. And then I notice, my bird being stressed, and then I notice, I have to calm down.
Frank: How does your bird get upset? What’s the clue there, what do you see, what do you notice.
Heidi: He really start to squeak really loudly, and he starts to flap his wings.
Frank: So when your bird gets upset, he shrieks more, and that’s not a sound you like, you don’t like high pitch sounds.
Heidi: No the high pitch sound I don’t like, and I don’t like him being upset. So for my sake, and for his sake, I know that I have to calm down.
Frank: Wow. Well, Heidi I’d like to thank you from the bottom of my heart and I really appreciate your time. Best of success with all your projects: Your art, your public speaking and just keep in touch, and I’ll keep in touch.
Heidi: Well thank you very much for inviting me, and thank you for your time.
Frank: You’re very very welcome. Have a great day Heidi!
Heidi: You too!
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