How photographing an autistic child taught me to be a better photographer

Color family photo

Ben is a beautiful curious little guy. Like most autistic kids, he doesn’t really like looking into the camera. But after about an hour, he got curious about me.

Today I photographed my first autistic child and I loved it. My client was worried because her son didn’t like to look at cameras, and she said, he can get very focused on something and not want to change course. Basically she was worried that this wouldn’t be what I expected or it would be difficult shoot. I told her, I am a photojournalist trained to make photos as they are happening, not to set them up and so I am going to treat this just like a story. Let’s just let him be himself.

It was awesome and it has taught me to be a better photographer in under two hours. Here is what I learned and will apply to photographing other autistic children, although they are all different.

Color family photograpy

Ben is a thinker and often in his own world. As he holds his stick, what is he thinking? Where is he going? What is his next move?

1. Take the child to a big park where they can run and explore.
2. Ask the parents what their child likes, or makes him happy. Tell the client you are just looking for moments between them and their child.
3. My client’s advice was to keep the kids away from water or jungle gyms because then it could be a mess. This was good advice.
4. Use a long zoom lens like an 80-200 at first, and stay back as far as you can, letting the child move around with his parents. You are going to have to run and get on your knees and run ahead to get the shot of them walking towards you, but don’t get in the way.
5. Gradually get closer and use a smaller lens like a 28-70mm.
6. Switch back and forth, getting closer and then backing out. Watch to see if the child is looking at you even a little. Autistic children have varying degrees of autism, but focus on the child and wait for the moments. They will come as he becomes more comfortable.
7. Ask the parent what makes the child laugh and see if they can figure out a way to fit it in.
8. Don’t force anything, let it be. Resist the urge to direct the shoot except maybe suggest that the kids and family walk in the shade or go to a clearer area with less people.
9. My favorites are when the kids and parents can hold hands, or when the parents can toss the child up in the air, but again, this all has to be done naturally. It may happen, it may not.
10. Stick it out. Don’t think this will happen in 45 minutes. It can take two or three hours which is different from a regular family shoot where the kids can poop out after an hour. Once the child starts to feel comfortable, that is when the photos start coming, and you want to be there.

Photographing autistic children

I love seeing them laughing together.

I would love to hear other ideas about photographing these kids. Please send me an email.

Suggestions from a friend…

Kiddos with autism-spectrum disorders often don’t smile intuitively, and emotional expression may not be natural. But, if you focus the shoot around an obsessional area, you may find the child lights up in a natural way. For example, if he currently loves trains, finding a way to incorporate that would be great. Likewise, a pre-interview with the parent about specific fears and/or sensory issues (smells, noises, environment), it will help set the stage for a better experience. Also, if kiddo is wearing clothing that’s familiar/comfortable or a favorite, all may go more smoothly. Strangers, including photographers, might also want to be aware that touch (even casual) can be upsetting for some kids (others may crave it or repeatedly throw themselves into you). For a disorder with many common global traits, it’s often very specific and individual, so if you’ve met/shot one person with autism … you’ve met one person with autism. I think those of us who know, love, work with people on the spectrum find that relationships are no longer superficial, by necessity … but what a privilege to really invest personal energy in really getting to know others! I hope you love working with these kiddos, because parents will treasure a good picture, and it’s often hard to get