by: Tera Girardin on
As a child photographer and an autism mom, I’ve learned a thing or two about photographing children with autism. And mostly I approach each session as I would any child, regardless of diagnosis. I strive to reveal the true inner beauty of each person I photograph. But to do so for children with autism takes some special considerations.
1. Pre-session consultationI always do a pre-session consultation either by email or over the phone with parents, where I ask several questions. Some involve getting to know a child’s personality and likes/dislikes. And others pertain to capabilities and limitations. I want to know in advance of a session if a child has any physical impairments, sensory challenges, cognitive disabilities because I’ll tailor the session and my approach accordingly.
Not only does this help me, it also puts the parents at ease so they don’t have to worry or wonder if they should or shouldn’t bring something up. I find it easier to have a frank discussion ahead of time because it sets the tone. And I find being frank is welcome by parents — often times special needs parents don’t know what what to tell you but they will be thrilled you asked. They will love you for doing your best to accommodate their child. It shows you care and know what you are doing.
2. Consider sensory issuesMany children with autism have sensory sensitivities. I tend to think of them as having super senses. This could be an acute sense of hearing or sensitivity to light and smell. So I sometimes need to adjust the blinds in my studio so it’s not quite so bright. And I rarely play music or run the loud fan in the studio while they are there. I try to be mindful to not wear cologne during sessions either.
It can also affect their physical space and their boundaries — either having zero boundaries and getting into everything or having a wide circle of personal space that’s needed to feel comfortable.
I always advise parents to allow their child to wear something that is comfortable to them too. I want them to be able to be themselves and not be agitated by clothes that feel itchy or distracting.
3. Physical limitationsThe definition of autism doesn’t include being physically impaired but people with autism can and often have multiple diagnoses so I like to ask if there are any mobility issues I should be aware of. Sometimes a child can have poor muscle tone. Can the child stand unassisted? Does he need to sit to be comfortable? Can he get down on the floor? Or is a chair a better option? I then plan out the furniture and poses accordingly.
4. Verbal vs. non verbalThe phrase “non verbal” is a bit misleading because it’s not always as black and white as being mute vs fully able to carry on a conversation. There are many shades of grey when it comes to communication and not all “non verbal” kiddos are quiet! If I learn a child is considered to be non verbal, I then ask if she is capable of understanding directions. Because sometimes a child may not have expressive language skills but their receptive skills are just fine. I also like to find out if the child uses an iPad or sign language or other form of communication. Often a child might have some emerging language skills vocalizations, mimicry or even basic words.
And even if a child is capable of conversing, she may have a slower processing pace. So questions and directions may need to be repeated and time allowed to answer or comply. Keeping directions simple and direct is best with children that have slower processing speeds.
And some children with autism have no problem carrying on a conversation! So don’t always assume there will be problems with communication when photographing a child with autism. You might have a chatterbox on your hands!
5. Location and safetyGoing back to boundaries, some children with autism don’t have a sense of boundaries or a sense of fear and danger. That means that thing that holds the rest of us back doing things we shouldn't is lacking or non existent for some with autism. This can lead to bolting and wandering and climbing or putting objects in mouths to name a few dangerous habits. For a photography session in my studio, I try my best to remove any tempting equipment, I blockade the stairs that lead to my storage loft and I do my best to make climbing opportunities at a minimum. I also remove anything that might be broken easily. This just puts a parent as ease so they don’t have to worry about binging their child to my studio and having them wreck anything. I want it to be as autism friendly as possible.
If we are going to be outside, I have a conversation with the parent first about what the child likes and dislikes. Often this means a playground! Which I have mixed feelings about photographing at. A lot of times, it can be hard to get a child to hold still for two seconds and engage with me at a playground. But sometimes it can bring out the biggest smiles because they are so happy playing and climbing. Just be prepared to chase and climb and run! If I feel the playground is going to be more of a distraction, I try to select a park where the playground isn’t easily seen right away and so I can get some images before the excitement of the playground kicks in. But a playground can be ideal for those kids who aren’t into engaging with a new person because it can remove that uncomfortable social situation and allows them just to play.
6. What is most important?I like to ask every client, autism or not, what is most important to you in this session? It helps them prioritize what they really want captured. Often autism parents know how hard it is to get good photos of their kids so they are not super demanding when it comes to requests! But I still like to know what are their expectations. Is a family portrait most important? Or is it capturing their son just being himself in some lifestyle candid moments? Do they plan to hang a portrait on their wall? Or use it for an album? This all helps me set the session up to be successful.
And if there is a long list of things that a client wants to accomplish, this question narrows it down and then I know without a doubt what I have to capture and what might be bonus shots. It can help manage too high of expectations. Too many sets and outfits can wear a child out. Especially one with a short attention span so getting to the heart of what’s most important to a client is critical for a successful session.
7. Eliminate distractionsBefore a client arrives to a session, if I’m in studio, I remove all distractions. This includes all the safety things but I also adjust any extra fun things that eagle-eyed children spot right away. The candy jar of suckers gets put away. The box of clips and kids toys and books are put out of sight. I sometimes use a reflector but if that becomes distracting, I put it away. Everything to keep a child’s focus on me.
If I’m outdoors, again, I look for things that might be distracting. A busy park with lots of people or cars will be distracting. Water is ALWAYS a distraction and can be a safety issue too. So finding a quiet place with nice lighting where a child will be comfortable is best.
8. Greet the childWhen I first meet a family at a session, I of course first greet the parents but I never leave out the child. I say hello and introduce myself. I don’t usually offer up a handshake or high five but I do make eye contact and get on their level. EVEN IF HE ISN’T VERBAL. This is so important because even if a child cannot speak, doesn’t mean he can’t fully understand what you are saying. And even if he can’t understand your words, he will read your body language and the energy you have and that goes a long ways in trying to build a connection so you can best photograph your subject.
And it speaks volumes to the parents. It says you are treating their child as a human being and the star of the session. Not just someone to look over or talk over.
Greet the child. Always.
9. Read the body languageAfter I greet the child, I read her body language. Is she hiding behind mom? Or is she curious about the surroundings and looking to explore? If she seems ready to engage right off the bat, I waste no time getting out my camera. Often those eager kiddos are the ones who can turn rambunctious quickly so it’s best to get started and work quickly before their energy ramps up. If she is quiet and hesitant then I chit chat with her parents for a bit first so she can process the new situation. And after a few minutes, I typically ask something like “Are you ready to have some fun with me and take some photos?” and then see how she reacts.
If a child is clingy with a parent or a special blanket or toy, I allow them to keep that person or item for a sense of security in a couple of photos first. I need to build trust with a child so allowing them to feel secure and throwing away a few images is well worth it. I want them to be comfortable.
A lot of times with neurotypical children that I photograph, they “act up” with their parents around. It becomes a power struggle and they often act a naughtier with their folks than with me. So I will remove the parents from the area — keeping them nearby if needed but by creating that space lets a child know they are working with me and they usually cooperate better.
However, with a child with autism, I don’t often find this to be the case. It’s not a dynamic that I’ve seen as much as with neurotypical kiddos (although certainly can be present). In fact if I were to ask the parents to step back or out of the room, it might cause a child with autism a lot of anxiety so I don’t usually need to employ this well-known photographer’s technique.
10. Mind your tone and demeanorPeople with autism are typically very no-nonsense and appreciate those around them that are too. So with children I find they respond best when you talk to them like you would an adult — no silly voices or antics are necessary. Again, sensory issues can come into play here as child might be sensitive to loud noises so being calm is best. Or a child may process verbal directions a bit slower so you may need to repeat directions.
I’m always careful to be patient, welcoming and respectful with my tone and demeanor.
I never ever use a flash or studio strobe or continuous lights when I photograph a child with autism (or anyone for that matter!). For those with autism in particular, that extreme light or flash can be too much for the child to handle. At times, I will use a reflector if the child is capable of sitting still but I’ll ditch it if it’s too distracting. And it can be instantly a source of curiosity so I skip it they become fixated on the big shiny object!
I tend to skip professional backdrops too when I’m in studio too for the distraction factor. It’s too appealing for curious kiddos to sneak behind. I keep furniture and set ups very simple.
On location I also keep it simple. Just me and my camera!
Some photographers put cutsey things on their camera lenses that look like stuffed animals and such to grab a child’s attention. I’ve found I don’t need that. Again, it’s about being no-nonsense and not confusing.
12. Pace the sessionA child who has a high energy level and isn’t great at boundaries, you’ll need to work quickly before their energy level spirals too high and you lose their attention. You can bring their energy down a bit by moving deliberately and by whispering your instructions if they are verbal.
Or you might encounter the opposite. The child that needs to acclimate to new surroundings or is anxious about a new situation. Being patient and waiting until that child is comfortable will be far more rewarding than to rush them.
13. Meet the child where they areThis is an overall good practice when interacting any child with autism. Meeting a child where they are, means making adjustments for any limitations autism brings but it doesn’t mean not including them or assuming they aren’t capable. For example, at the book launch of my “Faces of Autism” book and I included the children that were featured in the book to sign books along with me. Some were capable of this task but most were not. So we made accommodations such as having a parent or sibling assist or using a stamp or sticker with their name instead of an actual signature. This still allowed everyone to be included but met each child where they are at while allowing them to have success with the activity.
14. EngageFor most photographers, this is second nature as we want to engage with our subject in order to get them to relax or have natural smile. When photographing a child with autism, you really need to enter their world because they won’t easily enter yours. Observe what they are doing and follow their lead. Talk and play and laugh with them!
As a photographer I always, always, always strive for eye contact with my subjects. This can be really difficult for children with autism as it’s a challenge for them to look people in the eye. I never ever demand they look at me. I only encourage it through talk or play. But recognize just because they aren’t looking at you doesn’t mean they aren’t listening. Eye contact will happen, you just have to be fast to capture it.
15. Be quick on the triggerJust like eye contact, smiles can be fast and fleeting with children with autism so you have to be quick on the trigger! I typically do a quick test shot or two at the beginning of a session to set my camera’s settings but then I don’t fuss with it much beyond that. I never want to miss a moment because I’m worried about settings. So I might sacrifice a photo being technically correct in order to capture a beautiful moment because I know those moments will be fleeting.
Not only are those children quick with smiles but sometimes they are FAST moving too! So you’d better be willing to move around a lot! And be prepared to shoot and shoot and shoot. I tend to overshoot when I’m photographing a child with autism because it’s a bit harder to predict and anticipate those shots that will be keepers.
Just be ready for that moment when the true child shines through.
16. Use Mom or DadIf a child isn’t really engaging with me, I might need him to interact with someone more familiar. Then I will enlist mom and dad to help me out. Either getting their child’s attention directly over my head. Or getting in the photo and asking him to play a game or hug or tickle their child — whatever their favorite form of play is. Again, this will be very different from child to child. But I like to include parents when I can because often the child lights up around their parents.
And you don’t have to do a whole family photo either. Just use the parent as a prop and shoot over their shoulder. Or holding their child’s hand and only showing their hand, but keeping the focus on the child.
17. Use anchorsFor the wiggly body, I use chairs, stools, or even a sticker on the floor to anchor a child with autism to the place I want to photograph them. And for extra wiggly bodies, I have them sit on a wooden chair backwards — it’s not an easy position to bolt from and I can get a few good shots before they figure out how to climb off. Another good position can be having them lay on their stomach and look up at me.
Other ways of getting a child to stay still for a few moments is to sing their favorite song. Now, I’m a terrible singer but it does get a child to listen when they hear a tune they are familiar with. But anything to have a child remain in one spot for a few moments.
18. Recognize when the subject is DONELosing the room? Then it’s time to be done. Even if you never got started, you have to respect if a child isn’t enjoying themselves anymore. You can always try again another time if you never really got started. Knowing when a child is done comes from experience in reading body language. If the child has lost interest you usually can tell! And children with autism will often tell you straight out they are done. So call it a day but keep your camera handy because you never know when they might just relax and do something cute once the pressure is off! Some of my best photos happen when I say “we’re done!”
19. Reward appropriately
Before I offer any sort of reward, especially suckers or any other sort of candy, I ask parents first and out of earshot of the child. Many kids with autism have special diets or very picky tastes. So don’t just blurt out “want a sucker?” because they might want one badly but aren’t allowed due to diet issues.
I always welcome a hug from a child but never demand it — I can usually tell who the huggers are and often they initiate the hug when we are done. But some dislike being hugged and even touched. So I do my best to be respectful of these comfort zones yet I will still offer up a high-five for a job well done. (And not taking any offense if it’s not reciprocated).
20. Thank the childThis goes back to the same reasons I specifically greet the child when he or she arrives. I want to thank them for coming and playing and cooperating with me. It’s a sign of respect and it fosters a good feeling when they leave so they will hopefully look forward to the next time we get do photos!
Tera Girardin is a mom to three boys – her youngest is diagnosed with autism. She has been a child and family photographer for 12 years and is now author of “Faces of Autism,” a book of compelling photography and inspiring stories featuring 30 different children with autism. The book hopes to change the conversation from simple awareness to autism admiration. You can order the book and be inspired at www.facesofautismbook.com
Or schedule your own Faces of Autism Portrait Experience at www.teraphotography.com/foaportrait