It was nearly 20 years ago. Back in the days of film. I was a fairly new photographer. Working my day job, and then doing portraits, weddings, and anything else anyone wanted me to photograph in the evenings and on weekends.
I was using an old medium-format film camera. Attached was a flash that was like a huge cannon of light attached to the front of the camera. This produced what I thought were the best images in my neophile mind. I laugh now, thinking that I looked like a professional with 25 lbs. of camera gear around my neck!
One sunny Saturday afternoon I had a young man arrive at our home studio with his parents for his senior portraits. The young man was clearly struggling with a handicap. He struggled with language, his clothes were not the usual jeans and t-shirt, but wearing baggy sweats with his jacket hood up over his hair.
I talked with his parents for a short time and then we headed out to the “portrait park”. We got his hoodie down around his neck. His mom got his hair combed out with her fingers as I fiddled with my gear. I leaned him up against a tree, and BANG!!! My shutter went off. The flash went off. And…he went off!!
The next thing I knew he was running out of my backyard, and out to the street as fast as his feet could carry him. Fearful, we all ran after him, hoping he wouldn’t run into the street and get run over. That wasn’t his plan at all. He grabbed the car door. Flung himself into the back seat, and refused to ever come out again.
I felt horrible!! I refused to take money from the family, sending them off with a prayer that my one shot had turned out. 10 days later the one proof showed up and luckily I had one shot that had somewhat turned out that I could give the family.
Over the years I’ve had many experiences photographing children on the Autism Spectrum. I’ve had the best experiences and, clearly, I’ve had the worst! It has grown into a real passion in our studio to meet the needs of families who are non-neurotypical.
Here are some of the things I’ve learned over these past 20 years when working with people on the spectrum.
Photographing children with autism can present some unique challenges, as every child with autism is different, and some may be sensitive to certain sounds, textures, or lights. Here are some tips that I use regularly to help capture great photographs of families with autism:
- Establish a comfortable environment: Children with autism may feel overwhelmed or anxious in new or unfamiliar environments. Try to choose a location that the child is familiar with or allow them to spend some time exploring and getting comfortable with the setting before you start taking pictures. Sometimes this can be frustrating for the parents, but I like it when the kids look in the dressing rooms, behind the backgrounds, and anywhere else they need to check out to feel comfortable.
- Be patient: Children with autism may require more time and patience to get comfortable and feel relaxed in front of the camera. Give them the time and space they need to feel at ease and let them get used to the session as it happens.
- Use lighting methods that cause reduced stress: As I explained above, artificial lighting can be harsh and overwhelming for children with autism. Try to use natural light as much as possible. However, natural light is not always the best light for portraits. The use of large, diffused lights that are not on the camera is the best solution.
- Communicate clearly: Children with autism may have difficulty with social communication. This said, they also really are mostly wanting to cooperate, but just don’t know the best way to do that. Communicating clearly, gently, and being complimentary when they are doing well is the best way to get them to relax and know that things are going well.
- Consider sensory needs: Some children with autism may have sensory sensitivities, so it is important to be mindful of the sounds, textures, and colors in the environment. For example, loud or sudden noises may startle or upset some children, and certain fabrics or textures may be uncomfortable or irritating. Be flexible. If they don’t want to sit on the stool, box, or chair that you are wanting them on, then give them alternative places to sit that might be more comfortable.
- Focus on their interests: Persons with autism almost always have specific interests or hobbies that they are passionate about. Incorporating their interests into the photo session can help them feel more engaged and comfortable. I have photographed people with their instruments, their pets, and so many other things. Even if they don’t have a photographable item of interest, just having a discussion about their interests makes the whole experience magical. With one young man, we found a common interest in my hot pepper garden. Once we had each eaten a serrano pepper together he was able to laugh and enjoy the session. Part of it was how much pain I was in from eating the pepper!
- Have fun: Above all, try to make the photo session a fun and enjoyable experience. When anyone is having fun they are more likely to feel relaxed and comfortable in front of the camera, which will result in better portraits.
Hopefully, these quick tips help you in your next portrait session with your children on the spectrum or other non-neurotypical gifts. If you have any questions please feel free to reach out. We would love to help you have a wonderful experience and create some beautiful images of your family.