Photographing Autistic Children

Working with Austistic Children

Photographing children diagnosed with autism has its challenges, but definitely can be successful, even, I think, really fun.

This is from a recent shoot I did as contract work for another studio that I help out every once in a while. I usually have to shoot according to their particular style, so this was a very welcome break in my day.

The biggest challenge for any photographer shooting children diagnosed with certain disorders is that they usually don't know much about what they are dealing with. Since I do a lot of children's portraits, and work with a lot of different children in my volunteer work, I have taken the time to educate myself about various disorders that appear in childhood. This makes my job much easier and I am not intimidated by the various situations I am presented with.

For instance, as I mentioned, this sweet little boy has been diagnosed with autism. Often, one overwhelming effect of autism on a person is that they can experience certain textures, lights, smells, sounds, et cetra as very acute and obtrusive. In this case, this baby could not bear the flash in my studio set up. So, after I finished the other children, I took him outside to the playground, and had my assistant follow me with a reflector (sometimes called a flag) for fill light. It wasn't easy, I can assure you. Aside from me and my assistant, I also had the child's teacher and the director of the school with me running around. It was actually harder with all the extra hands. In the end, I had to ask the teacher and the director to step aside. I followed the boy around the playground, up the slide and down the stairs, over to the cars, over to the castle and back again, shooting the whole time. My poor assistant actually had the worst time trying to keep up and get the light right at the same time. Even in this image that I have chosen, the lighting isn't exactly the way I would like, but you must understand that even though we are professionals, this is much harder than it looks.

In the end, once I got the extra adults to step aside, it became easier. The teacher brought him his cars that you see in his hand. The cars are his favorite toy because of the way the wheels roll. He can spend a lot of time rolling those wheels. This is a good thing for me because then he stopped running around so much. Once we made friends over the cars, he decided he wanted to show me the triceratops because it is his favorite. It was perfect. I asked him to show me how you ride the triceratops, and that is how I got him to sit down for a few seconds and make the image. Another thing that helped is that once we made friends, he understood that I wanted to take a picture of him and so he smiled for me. Unfortunately they were very hard and unnatural smiles, but I appreciated the sentiment and played along. The thing that helped, though, was that in between the unnatural smiles, he was so happy that we were playing and he was helping me by smiling that I actually got this good smile out of him.

This is not the first autistic child I have photographed or worked with. I get the opportunity to on a regular basis, and I have to say that I actually enjoy the challenge. It breaks up my usual routine in portrait photography and is very rewarding when I get to bring some fun into the child's day and make the parents happy by making an image for them of their child that they probably did not expect to have turn out so well, and capture their child as the fun-loving kid he or she is.

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