If you’re autistic, everyday errands can require days, weeks or months of planning, prep, and stamina. Challenges with sensory integration – where bright lights, certain sounds, or textures can hurt or overwhelm you can make a routine trip to the grocery store feel like navigating a war zone.
This article is the first in a series to help photographers and families capturing the stories of autistic members.
Written from my perspective as an autistic individual, family documentary photographer and a mother, I hope these guides will help eliminate the stress of preparing for a photo session and turn it into a fun event that every family looks forward to.
My husband is neurotypical. He can have a conversation while cooking breakfast. His brain takes no notice of the hum of the refrigerator, the breeze from the window or the sizzle of eggs. His attention effortlessly switches between the topic at hand, cooking and an itch on his right elbow.
For many people on the autism spectrum, that scenario can be challenging. Switching my attention between tasks take more time and energy than it does for my husband. It’s not only frustrating – it can make basic chores like packing a lunch take all day.
Getting back to the task at hand can take a while or may even be impossible, especially if distractions are constant (like a scratchy shirt tag) or frequent (like babies in need of nursing/changes/kisses). Alternatively, I may be so hyper-focused on a project that it takes priority above more urgent matters – such as forgetting to eat while editing photos.
Dragging my attention away and switching gears for interruptions can take huge effort.
The key to extraordinary photographs is to let go of your expectations and allow for slow transitions.
Tips for managing transition challenges
- Whether a person is autistic, neurotypical or even nonverbal, it’s helpful for people to know what’s coming up next so they can mentally prepare.
- Autistic adults and children may not be able to process what you are saying while also maintaining eye contact, so feel free to look to the side while talking to them. While many neurotypical people unconsciously perceive that as rude or
shifty, those of us who find eye contact stressful will welcome the space to think.
- Explain sounds, lights, and textures before they happen. Explain the sounds of a shutter and what it means, explain why a light is positioned the way it is (and ask if it bothers them).
- Don’t touch – use clear, concise instructions and ask subjects to change positions when necessary. Ask before touching or getting too close, as everyone has different boundaries.
- Avoid figurative language so you don’t sound like a delusional weirdo. Squealing, “You’re a princess!” to provoke a smile may be met with a confused, “No, I’m not.”
- When preparing for a transition, say, “Next,” or “After __, we will ___.” Promising a 5-minute activity and then taking 10 may feel like a lie, leading to frustration and a loss of your credibility with those of us who speak literally. (See: Every single fight with my husband before we realized I’m autistic.)
- Find out what they want to know, and in what level of detail. If necessary, keep a running dialogue of every tiny step. Tell them what is going on to ease anxiety in an unfamiliar situation. Inviting them to watch the process of picture-taking can help them forget about being observed.
- Put the camera down at first. For everyone – not just autistic members, families need some time to adjust to the surreal experience of being observed and recorded by a stranger.
- The part of your brain that processes facial expressions and body language (and automatically registers an appropriate response) is something most people with autism weren’t born with. It’s a second language for us (one with no textbooks). So give us time to translate.
- We may hyper-focus on details. Neurotypical families can take anywhere from 10-30 minutes before they “forget” about the camera, but autistic individuals may need more (or less) time to adjust because we’re hung up on details and can’t unlock.
- Those of us with autism might be stoic when we’re overwhelmed. Others don’t see how hard we work to switch focus, or what it takes to process what just happened. Meltdowns may appear out-of-nowhere, but are a gradual culmination of over-stimulation and too many demands at once. Wait for meltdowns to pass. Be patient through a quiet recovery period.
- Avoid giving instructions in quick succession. Offer guidance, be patient and verify things are working before moving on to the next step.
- To deal with unpredictability and hiccups, I never book more than one session a day. Families can’t relax if you’re pressed for time after a 30-minute session is stalled by a 27-minute meltdown.
- Allow for more time to transition between activities – a lot more time. If your regular sessions last an hour, set aside three.
- To avoid meltdowns, parents or kids might recognize that they need a little break. Take advantage of this time and remember the rest of the family.
Photograph parents together, just the two of them. Focus your attention on siblings, who may not get to be the center of attention often.
- For family members with proximity and tactile issues, start farther away with a longer lens and slowly move closer as the session progresses and they get more comfortable with you.
Look for Opportunities
- Recognize fascination: If a family member is hyper-focused on a task (like inspecting a bug or spinning a bike wheel) and having trouble transitioning away from it, invite the rest of the family to join in.
- Capture the experience: Ask them what they notice, how they feel about what’s going on. Give them time and let them be fully in the moment with this small detail.
- Hyper-focus is a gift: Only without orchestration, without a strict schedule, can we capture these moments. It’s rare to find subjects fully unaware of the camera, entranced in something that delights them. Record the relationships between family members as they engage with one another and share this moment.
- Show the humor, the hard work and the love they have for each other.Prepare, Prepare, Prepare
- Routines are a coping mechanism we use to navigate a confusing world full of overwhelming sensory stimulation. So help us and accommodating them when possible.
- Scheduling: Schedule your session at a time of day that won’t throw everything into chaos (hint: no golden-hour sessions for kids who still nap).
- Familiar environments: Choose a familiar environment to minimize potentially overwhelming sensory experiences.
- Meltdown procedure: Ask parents if their child has meltdowns, and if so, what to expect and what they need you to do during that time.
- Bumps in the road: Have clear (but flexible!) cancellation policies if anxiety gets overwhelming for family members nervous about a break in routine. Families will understand that you need to be paid for missed opportunities (you have your own kids to feed), but make your policies as generous as you can afford and treat families the way you’d want to be treated.
- Take the pressure off: Clearly establish that there is no pass/fail to a photo session – the goal is for the experience, and no pause, meltdown or refusal to cooperate will keep you fromfinding a way to make images to tell their story.
- Know your limits: That said, if you can’t capture great images despite these hiccups, it might be best to refer them to a more experienced or a different type of photographer. You can always find another client – the family will only have this moment once.
- Create the ideal session: Get a free Family Portrait Planner and learn the differences between portrait session types to see which works best for each family.
- Stay curious: Find out what kids are fascinated by so you can ask questions about it. Ask why they like it. Ask what they find fascinating about it. Stay engaged, but don’t fake interest if you don’t get it.
- Sensory needs: Find out what sensory sensitivities a child may have and adjust the session to minimize them. Shoot without supplemental lighting or a flash, turn down the shutter sound and shoot from a distance if necessary.
Autistic children and adults are often described as being rigid and inflexible. The truth is, keeping it together while accommodating nonsense social rituals, remembering to make the right amount of eye contact, talking about stuff we don’t care about and translating facial expressions and figurative language takes a lot of energy. We’re flexible and accommodating – it’s just that all of our energy has been used. So meet us halfway – be flexible when we can’t.