Children on the Autism spectrum are often seen as difficult to photograph. To be honest, I shied away from these sessions for a long time too, that was until my niece was born and we learned that she was on the spectrum. I began taking gigs with organizations like MusicWorks and the Autism Cares Foundations so that I was put in situations where I could learn and be exposed to more families with children with Autism so I could learn and see what to do. Whenever my niece was around it was hard, I couldn't and DIDN'T understand her. My exposure with and to Autism was very limited and I felt like an Asshole. I didn't like feeling as if I was loving her any less because of my ignorance. I also didn't want to avoid her because I didn't understand her
As a photographer, I have always said that it was my job to provide families with real memories. I didn't want to alienate this client base because I was naive and uneducated, I wanted to learn HOW to be a better person and learn the facts. This is just real talk people, who don't know the facts tend to shut down or take jobs without proper education. As a photographer my job is to document and do so without being intrusive, People on the spectrum are not only sensitive but are also keenly aware of what's going on around them. So I reached out to my good friend Lori MusicWorks and explained what I needed. We agreed that this information would be helpful for other photographers too. I mean I can't be the only one who has thought of this and wants to photograph these families and needs guidance.
Lori has generously provided a list of questions that you can use as a guide when talking with parents prior to scheduling their family portrait session and I will add it a free download as well.
- Does the child take interest in other children?
- Does the child pretend play, like talk on the phone or take care of a dolly?
- Does the child point?
- Does the child look you in the eye for more than a second or two?
- Does the child seem oversensitive to noise? Quick movement?
- Does the child smile in response to the word SMILE or a smile on your face?
- Does the child respond when his / her name is called?
- Does the child understand direction and what is said to him?
I will remind you that ‘normal' children don't always respond well to strangers so a child with Autism who has sensory issues like fast movement or loud noises will really have an issue with you. Be mindful of things like your camera flash or you just moving around from one spot to another too quickly. We know there are clients that have concerns with family portraits being PERFECT so you should have these conversations early on. Discuss with your client photo locations, do you have access to a studio, will you conduct sessions in their home, will you shoot outdoors? How will the child handle this, Has the child been photographed in these environments before? As far as lighting will you strictly use natural light or will you need to use a flash ( this is an important factor especially in the winter months on the East Coast). I will also say try meeting the family prior to the session like I said earlier no child is too trusting of strangers. Use the above list of questions as your guide while you prep for your session. In the end, though remember the child just may not want to be photographed and those funky faces that you capture are still AMAZING!
If you know of anyone who is in need of Music therapy check out MusicWorks, they have a treatment site in Havertown and a new site in Horsham PA, They do AMAZING work.
Authors Note: As a mom I get it and I don't judge, there's a part of you that wishes for one, just one Norman Rockwell Photo, we all do. There's no shame to that. The comfort comes in knowing that you're creating a new version of Norman Rockwell that no one can ever measure up to. Each and every little nuance is special and while it may try your patience because you want your child to smile or worry that their clothes are dirty or wrinkled, as a photographer it's my job capture that imperfection. As your babe grows and learns new things these are the photos you will treasure always and the juice stained shirt won't matter anymore.