I have been wanting to write a blog about autism for a long time now. It is a subject I am deeply invested in, as the mum of a child on the ASD (autistic spectrum disorder) pathway. I don’t claim to be an expert but I do have first hand experience of the challenges faced by children with autism, and their families. This is as well as understanding the complete high when an achievement, that their peers may have reached a long time ago, is accomplished.
I will never forget watching Paddy McGuiness open up to John Bishop, on his in conversation with series, about his three children, two who have a diagnosis and one I believe to be on the pathway. At the end of the interview John always asks his guest to bring in a memorable photo. Paddy’s choice was a picture of himself, his wife, Christine, and their three beautiful children. A picture that John had actually taken in his own back garden. When asked the significance of the photo Paddy said “because it’s the only photo of us as a family that we have”. You could see John visibly choked at this and we at home were crying our eyes out. These things that other families take for granted, like having photos taken, are sometimes damn near impossible for families with children with autism. I take it for granted that I have beautiful photographs of my child because I am a photographer and I know how to photograph him where he’s happy and comfortable. I am here to tell you that you can have beautiful pictures of you children, as they are, and you as a family with a change in approach and a photographer who has experience of autism.
One of the families I have been photographing for 3 years now is Kate, Rob and their little boy, William. William is one of the most rewarding children to photograph. Seeing him thrive each time I see him and seeing the incredible connection to his parents flourish makes me feel such happiness and pride. His gorgeous mum, Kate, and I have become firm friends. She is both an amazing mother and a wonderful writer. She has beautifully written about how autism affects William and why having photograph of him are so important to her . I, with my photographers hat on, wanted to share some things that I have found really helpful when photographing my little boy and other children with autism to show that having photographs of your littles ones, as they are, is possible whilst being a good experience.“This is World Autism Awareness week. Our son is autistic. It doesn’t define him it is simply a part of him. When we first started thinking he might have ASD it was a worrying and scary thought. The reality of it is that after a very long diagnostic process he is the same child he was before, he just happens to have autism. I think everyone is aware of autism, they’ve heard of it. But as to what it actually means and the impact it has -maybe not. There is a saying that if you’ve met one autistic person then you’ve met one autistic person. It basically does not present the same in anybody. So whilst awareness is great, I do think that acceptance, understanding and knowledge is what we need. Our son is a delight. He loves life and is a really happy child. He also has struggles. He has rigid and repetitive behaviours that can be difficult for him to control. He doesn’t always understand social cues, can’t always articulate how he feels or why he feels it and gets confused with reading other people. Things can seem a big deal to him that another child wouldn’t register. He has an incredible memory and a super aptitude for numbers, letters, song lyrics and dates even at 4. But as a parent you worry about special interests overtaking all aspects of life and impacting on friendships and other activities. Every parent worries over their child but when a child has special educational needs then that is magnified. You worry about the world understanding them and being kind.
I know with my little boy that I want to see the real him in pictures that not everyone gets to see. This is what I have found other families with children who have autism and/or ADHD also want without stress or not knowing whether a meltdown is around the corner.
I photograph other children as I do my own, by tuning in to them and their individual needs. All children need different things and that is so important to understand and respect. Some children need high energy from me, others need me to not say anything and observe. Some children want to be photographed the second they see me whilst others need time to get used before I even take my camera out of my bag. Whatever your child needs is completely ok. Things I find helpful are ;
- Communication beforehand about likes and dislikes and letting me know a little about how autism affects them
- Choosing a place to have photographs where they are familiar and comfortable, whether it be the park, the beach or at home
- Picking clothes that they are going to be comfortable in rather than “best clothes” they aren’t familiar with
- Bringing a special toy they they find a comfort
- Knowing that I have no expectations of you or your child. I am there to document your family, as it is, and I follow your childs lead
- Allowing your child the freedom to play as they normally do is the best way to capture them, as they are
- Join in! You know your child better than anyone and they will be more comfortable if you are
- When your child has had enough, they have had enough. I always want to end on a positive so when they want to stop that’s what we do.
Having photos of my child and our family to look back on in years to come, (or even months to come as they change so fast) has always been important to me as I love photographs. Getting photographs of William wasn’t always easy. His ASD means that he has his own agenda a lot of the time and does things his way. The typical “say cheese, look at the camera” type photography doesn’t always work with him. But having Rachel take our photographs for the last three years has changed it all completely because she photographs him as he is. If he wants to run around the same tree 40 times that’s okay. If he needs to be thrown in the air again and again that’s okay too.
She photographs him doing just that. Whatever he wants to do and feels happy doing is what she wants to do and is happy to do too. Before our first shoot I worried about how it would go. But it was perfect for us as a family. We had our first set when he was 20 months, and have had them every year since. William is comfortable and happy around Rachel and it shows in our photographs. I didn’t want to go to a shoot where the photographer was posing him or trying to get him to smile because I knew he wouldn’t respond to that. Rachel is the opposite, she photographs him as he is and the smiles and laughter are all his own. I absolutely treasure all of the photographs she has taken of us as a family because they are real, full of love and show our son as we know and adore him.
The more I learn about autism and sensory processing and everything in between then the more fascinating it is and the more I hope that I can understand my child and how his mind works. I am incredibly proud to be his Mummy. I wouldn’t change him for the world, but I might change the world for him”