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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The Sandy Hook Shooting – Autism and Empathy

The Connecticut School Shooting – Autism and Empathy

The Houston Chronicle reports that a former classmate of Adam Lanza said, “If you looked at him (Lanza), you couldn’t see any emotions going through his head.” The presumption here being that Lanza’s apparent lack of empathy seems to confirm his Asperger’s diagnosis and may explain the motives for his violent behavior.

This is wrong. It is commonly assumed that people with Autism can’t feel empathy. The truth of the matter is, many on the spectrum feel enormous empathy. In fact, they are overly sensitive and often find it extremely difficult to regulate their empathetic feelings.

When asked, individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome confirm this. A few years ago, young people on the Spectrum talked about their ability to feel empathy in a website discussion on
“If anything, I struggle with having too much empathy” one person commented. “If someone else is upset, I am upset. There were times during school when other people were misbehaving, and if the teacher scolded them, I felt like they were scolding me.”
Another individual said, “I am clueless when it comes to reading subtle cues, but I am *very* empathic. I can walk into a room and feel what everyone is feeling, and I think this is actually quite common in AS/autism. The problem is that it all comes in faster than I can process it.”
So why do pundits and commentators leap to make the Aspergers-Non-Empathy-Violence connection when talking about the school shooting in Connecticut?

Because we all want an answer to this senseless killing and we’d like it to be one we can understand. But Autism, like the truth, is complicated. And leaping to a conclusion that Adam Lantz’s autistic tendencies can help explain his violent outburst simply invites a discussion that takes us backward rather than forward and does nothing to help us do the hard work of understanding what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary.

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