In my ten years as an elementary school teacher, and now as an “all-abilities photographer” I’ve learned that I have a passion for working with kiddos who are on the autism spectrum. There is nothing that makes me happier than making them feel special and bringing out their sense of humor. It’s difficult to explain to someone who is unfamiliar, uncomfortable, or even skeptical of autism. I don’t want anyone to miss out on the joy that can be experienced from having these individuals as friends.
Let me use a gardening analogy to explain understanding someone with autism. Here are some images that I took in my garden that I hope helps someone feel like they could become more accepting of someone who is a little (or a lot) “quirky.” Of course, no two people with autism are alike, but this will give you a good start.
1: When you’re planting a seed, you look at the packet for the directions. What’s the best time of year to sew? How much sun does the seed need? How deep should it be planted? It’s unwise to think that one can just throw any kind of seed on the ground, and then blame it for not flourishing. In the same way, people with autism need someone who picks up on their cues, understands how they function, and gives them time to adjust to new conditions. This is probably my favorite part about meeting someone with autism! I LOVE figuring out what makes them happy and sharing in their joy while carefully dancing around what might set them off. It’s not coddling, it’s making them feel valued. It’s love.
2: Here’s another way to look at it: as a teacher and photographer I have learned that nothing can happen until someone with autism, and especially Aspergers, feels safe. When the surroundings are familiar, their shirt isn’t itchy, and they aren’t told to stop rocking, one can start to see an incredible individual. When a plant does what it’s genetically programmed to do, it’s beautiful! Put epsom salt on the ground under the tomatoes, and systemic for roses, don’t try to make it into something else.
3: Here’s one of my favorite things about gardening, and watching children grow too. When I put a plant in the ground, I read about what it should do in the zone where I live…but the plant might have something else in mind. It’s so fun to see how one plant doesn’t do much of anything, and another needs to be held back from outgrowing the others. One plant could prefer to grow directly on the garden path, instead of where it was placed, and that’s the beauty. It’s so amazing to see how tiny humans who hold a big part of our hearts, grow up to have their own feelings, tastes, and strengths. It’s up to us to nurture that. Trying to change who they are only leads to a sense of not being good enough in their growing minds.
4: Another key is remembering to have fun. A well timed joke can ease all kinds of awkward and tense moments. It all comes down to assuming that others have good intentions and aren’t trying to make you miserable. Just be careful that your joke isn’t something that could be frightening when taken literally, as people with autism tend to be quite literal.
5: Empathy. No matter how “quirky” someone is, we have all felt the same feelings. When they say they hate the sound of chairs scraping on the floor, remember that certain sounds bother you too. You have food preferences, and you’ve worn uncomfortable clothing as well. When you see someone with autism who is wilting, offer your empathy, offer support.
6: Sure, having someone with autism in your life can get messy and challenging. Sometimes it can be so frustrating that you don’t know where to turn or if it will ever get better. Here’s one thing I can surely promise you, though: loving someone with autism will change you. It will change your values, and your outlook. It will give you a joy in tiny victories that no one else would appreciate. It could make you sadder than you’ve ever been, but it WILL make you happier than ever, too.
“But most of this is true about all people.” you’re thinking. You’re right. Now use what you know and light up someone’s life.
Hi! I’m Anne Young, a family photographer based in the Seattle area. I’m accredited by Special Kids Photography of America, and I’d love to create a beautiful, stress-free family photography session of the people you love most.