Autism and the Power of Pictures

Photographs have the power to inform and sometimes change how we think about something. An example of the transformative potential of photographs is the Farm Security Administration Photography Project which was carried out during the Great Depression. In that project, the FSA commissioned photographers to visually document the daily lives of tenant farmers and sharecroppers to give Americans a front row seat on the devastating affects of a longstanding drought. Many believe the project sufficiently influenced the views of enough Americans to allow passage of the New Deal economic reforms.

A nonprofit in Massachusetts called the Broad Spectrum Project is harnessing the power of photographs to promote a broader and truer understanding of the day-to-day facets of living with Autism. The photographer behind the Project is Kristin Chalmers, who produces posed and un-posed photographs of children with Autism and their families. The organization’s mission statement is:

To provide authentic images of autistic people, so the world can see the many diverse faces of autism, begin to understand its effects, and support the cause.

To ensure the authenticity of their images, Kristin often takes photographs of children and families while in the middle of their daily activities, doing what they normally do or in celebratory events, such as a regional benefit walk for Autism Speaks. Chalmers was recently named the official photographer for Autism Speaks New England.

Kristin has a son with PDD/NOS and is sensitive to the sensory and situational challenges of children on the Spectrum when she organizes and schedules photo shoots. Photo subjects aren’t generally asked to pose in formal portrait-taking sessions because those sessions involve many elements which are upsetting to children on the Spectrum – dressing in uncomfortable, possibly sense-violating clothes, going to a strange place in an unfamiliar situation and sitting and smiling on cue in a studio with bright, hot lights.

To help your children to develop skills that help them face the situation they come up in their daily life, the aba therapy will help them to grow as individual.

For times when formal photo sessions are scheduled, Kristin is willing to change the schedule if the appointed day turns out to be one when the child has a hard time getting regulated. She works, not just to create insightful, poignant pictures, but also to make sure the photography process is a good and beneficial experience for the children she’s working with.
When you scroll through the Spectrum Project collection of pictures, you may first simply see that the photos are beautiful and well composed. Then, as you continue to look, you find yourself walking alongside the children and the adults who love and support them. You’re caught up in the spirit and rhythm of their lives.
This is a very good thing indeed. It’s a good thing for Spectrum families. Better yet, it’s a good thing for neurotypical individuals who struggle to understand Autism as more than a “light it blue” campaign during Autism Awareness month and news stories about children in crisis.
The website for the Broad Spectrum Project is:

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Is Your Teen Tad Shy?

Sandra Pearson for

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Melva Radtke who, along with her husband and son, created 9th Planet. This unique video modeling program helps Tweens, Teens and Young Adults with Aspergers and high functioning Autism navigate the social world around them.

Following a science fiction storyline that will appeal to this age group, the videos feature Tad Shy an alien from the 9th Planet. Tad wants to interact with the “typicals” on this planet and Bob, a robot on his spaceship, acts as his coach, guiding him through social situations. The videos come with a workbook and are entertaining and humorous to encourage the repeat viewing that reinforces the social skills they teach.

9th Planet currently offers two skill sets. The first one deals with basic situations such as physical space, asking questions and eye contact. The second one tackles more complicated situations such as empathetic listening, recognizing sarcasm and phone skills. A new series offering job search skills is currently in production. This series will focus on the executive function skills needed for a job search and in the workplace.

And the best part, is that several members of the cast and crew have Autism Spectrum diagnoses.

Necessity is the Mother of Invention

As with many innovative special needs programs and services, this one was created by a mom. Melva is an attorney and educator with a son on the Autism Spectrum. Tristan, AKA Tad Shy is now in his 20s but he wasn’t diagnosed until he was in Junior High. When he was younger, they knew something was “off” but no one could quite figure out what. He was diagnosed as ADHD and put on Ritalin but it was clearly not the answer.

Then an article appeared in Time Magazine about Autism and Aspergers Syndrome. The Radtkes felt like they were reading about their own son.

So while they had a name, Aspergers, and even an IEP, Tristan was aging out of programs designed for younger kids. Nothing in Tristan’s school programs fit him. They had nobody to help. So, out of frustration with their own situation, 9th Planet was born.

Success for Their Own Son

Melva and her husband had seen other videos and thought, hey, we can do that! So they did. Now Tristan has a diploma in film editing from a technical college and does the video editing for the Tad Shy series.

Melva says that being able to create something useful for their son and others is very rewarding. She says it’s been an amazing experience to watch the social impact the videos have had on a worldwide scale. And not only are other parents sharing success stories but the videos are also being used in school classrooms.

Tad and Bob give teachers, therapists and parents a point of reference when they talk about a skill that is less personal and less defensive. And ultimately more helpful.

Dimensions (approximately): H 86cm

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