“My motto, ‘never give up’, is as relevant to sport as it is to life in general”
At the age of 19, Florian Van Acker, an athlete with autism, has already carried Belgium to the highest level of table tennis worldwide. Number 1 in the world rankings, he became Paralympic Champion in Class 11 (Intellectual Disability) during the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. In 2015, he became European Champion in Class 11 and in 2014 he made his debut in the World Championships, taking home a bronze medal.
Autism-Europe: What does it mean for you to have won a Paralympic gold medal in Rio?
Florian van Acker: It’s a dream come true, that’s what it means to me. It’s an incredible feeling, like the excitement of a child the day before the start of the summer holidays.
AE: Tell us about your experience in Rio
FvA: I went to Rio a week before the Paralympics, to gradually get used to my environment, the Olympic Village, my room, and so on. It is not easy for a person with autism to get out of his usual environment, especially in a stressful context. I had time to discover the venue where we were going to play and train. During my second week there, I mainly rested. I ate and went to bed at fixed times.
AE: What is your experience as a player in the “ordinary circuit”?
FvA: It’s very positive, but it was not easy at first. Because of my autism and my slight mental handicap, it is not always easy for me to join a group of people who don’t know me. They do not see that I have a disability. I have been playing table tennis for 9 years now in a standard category. It is thanks to the help and patience of William, a friend and member of the Board of Directors at my first club who taught me to play table tennis and who believed in my abilities, that I have been able to gain confidence and recognition.
AE: What sports do you practice and why is table tennis your favourite?
FvA: For the time being I only play table tennis and, to relax, I go cycling as well. I also like horseback riding. I did it a lot in the past but I stopped for lack of time and for fear of falling and hurting my hands. I also did judo and played basketball, but the rules were too complicated so I stopped. Basketball was especially difficult because it is a team sport that constantly requires you to take account of the other people in the game. In table tennis there is Although it may sound strange, I also like the fact that the ball goes back and forth, always with the same effect, like a pattern it repeats.
AE: What does being autistic mean for you?
FvA: With age, I understand better who I am and what I am like. I know that I am not always easy, but I am able to talk about it and I do not consider myself inferior to others, merely different. Thanks to my success in the world of sport, I feel equal to others. If someone does not accept me or is unpleasant towards me because they do not know me, in this case my mind is made up about them, and I decide to have nothing more to do with them. I stick with those who remain by my side. It is not always easy and sometimes I lose my temper.
AE: What are the difficulties you come across as an autistic person?
FvA: Trying to overcome the chaos and pressure I sometimes feel by concentrating on sport and taking myself off to my room to listen to some quiet music; hoping that there will not be too many changes to the day’s plans and, if so, learning to accept that some things are not possible or are inevitable.
Florian is the adopted son of the Belgian couple Eric and Dora Van Acker-Debedts. Florian was abandoned shortly after his birth in Romania. He spent the first years after his birth in an orphanage and a transitional foster family. Florian was 3 and a half years old when he arrived in Belgium.
Dora Debedts recounts her experience in an interview with Sporta Magazine: “He was active, impulsive, agitated. At first we thought that this agitation and tension was due to his stay at the orphanage. At the beginning, we had not considered other possible reasons, especially knowing that at the age of two Florian could not yet walk, ate no solid food, and spent most of his time in a small bed.
Later, my husband and I thought that his dynamism was linked to his thirst for discovery or an emotional need. We assumed that his IQ, slightly below average, was either hereditary or due to the neglect and lack of love that he suffered at the very beginning of his life. (…) Due to his intellectual or cognitive impairment, he is limited in his communication, autonomy and social interaction. At school, if something did not interest him, he would close his book, and that was it, full stop. He agreed to make a little effort only if he liked his teacher. Fortunately, this evolved positively over the years. “
AE: Has sport helped you to cope with your autism?
FvA: Thanks to sport I am calmer and I have more confidence in my abilities.
AE: What things do you enjoy doing when you are not practicing sport?
FvA: Listening to music and watching films.
AE: What new challenges have you set yourself?
FvA: To win the 2018 World Championships in my category. I already have the bronze medal, now I hope to win a gold. I would then have the first-place medal at the Paralympic Games, the World Championships and the European Championships.
AE: Do you have a message for other autistic people out there?
FvA: First and foremost, believe in yourself and those who support you, help you and believe in you, especially your parents who know you the best, but also your friends and all those who want what’s best for you. People with autism very easily recognise people who have good intentions and those who don’t. My motto, “never give up” is as relevant to sport as it is to life in general.