Family photography and autism, part two: Exercising delight

In my last blog post, I wrote about my belief in the importance of family photography, more specifically for the family with autism 'in the mix', meaning with a family member on the autism spectrum (ASD, or ASC). These are my personal feelings, about something that just makes sense to me, not about any studies or academia or whatnot. This is something that is valuable to me. So, in the first part of this blog series I focused on the value for the visual learner, the autistic person. Read more about that here. But wait, there's more... (I've got a busy little brain when it comes to this topic!)

Spectrum kids often struggle – socially, emotionally, with sensory processing, and so on – with their everyday life. An average school day can be monumentally challenging for them, and overwhelming in all different ways. Their family and home is, even more than for most kids, their safe place. Sometimes, as other mums will know, being a safe place doesn't always mean we get their best behaviour! But we are their haven, and often their translators, in a world of overwhelm and uncertainty. So the bond, the need, is just woven that little bit more tightly, keeping us - as their anchor - nice and strongly secured.

Firstly, this is a precious relationship, a unique relationship, with the beautiful and treasured connection between parent and child, between family members, enhanced by the intensity of the autism experience. From going through the diagnostic process, to the way we look at the world through their eyes, and filter the world for them when we can, there is an added layer to our family life that can be brilliantly rewarding, and supremely difficult at times. This is a relationship that deserves documenting, capturing and remembering.

That this is valuable, worth capturing, enjoying and celebrating, is ever true of these intricate family ties, which are always 'limited edition' and everchanging in every family. And so, this is ever more true of any family with special challenges in their lives.

Secondly, with these additionally layered family ties, these bonds can be even harder to cherish in the everyday. Where parents may be carers, therapists and advocates as well as mother or father; where the behaviours they work through may involve aggression, non-communication, self-destruction and anxiety; where the worries and concern stretch years into the future as well as each hour of the day... these relationships can, at times, be exercises in endurance. Not that there aren't moments of gratitude, reward and delight - and those are wonderful times – but there are certainly seasons where it is hard to stop coping and celebrate. Honouring these relationships is an exercise in optimism and gladness, and a deliberate focus on what is uniquely brilliant about our particularly different kids. Sometimes we're just too tired.

Taking that time to organise, lead up to and participate in a family photography session is beautiful, and meaningful, and a gorgeous testament to the strength you draw on every day of your life. It's a celebration of the individuals that make up your stunningly unique family, and a celebration of the love you share. Because of it all, despite it all, sometimes not and then twice as much again. This is real, this is extraordinary, this is powerful. This is you.

Family photography and autism, part one: Pictures of love

It is my personal belief that it is even more important for a family with autism in the mix to have family photography, even more so than an apparently typical family. Don't get me wrong, I do always feel that it is so valuable and meaningful for families to celebrate their milestones, their togetherness and their beautiful connections. I really do. But my reason for that statement is partly about the person/people on the spectrum, and partly about the experience of parenting with autism in the mix.

Today, I'm just going to talk about the value for the autistic person. Let's just assume in this article that we're talking about a child or youth. It applies to adults as well, and it actually applies to a lot of non-autistic, visually oriented people as well, but in this instance I will use the example of an autistic child. I am also thinking about my own children when I write, so there's my disclaimer ;)

Basically, with autism, a person's visual processing speed is often vastly superior to their auditory comprehension. Temple Grandin explains how she thinks in pictures. My middle child, Ash, for an example from my own family, had a visual processing speed at the 88th percentile of his age when he was tested at 5 years old. His auditory processing was at the 22nd percentile. That's a large disparity, yes, which is often part of the diagnostic screening in itself. But it's the real life application that is the thing.

If someone says something to Ash, it is processed far slower than a typical child of his age. Processing time is really important, and if a lot of information is spoken at once then some of that information will invariably fall through the cracks, because his auditory processing skills are not at the level that you might expect. However, if someone shows him something, it is processed far more quickly than a typical child. Visual patterns, systems, instructions, concepts - everything that goes in to his brain through visual means is easier to process, understand and respond to, or take on board.

Being told 'I love you' is beautiful, and true, and supportive. In the moment we say it, it is a meaningful, connective gesture. It is a genuinely lovely gesture, and one which we repeat, often.
My family, photographed by Angie Baxter
Being able to see 'I love you' visually, a gorgeous image of that bond you share, a photograph that becomes woven into the landscape of their everyday, that is beautiful, and true, and strong. That is a visual foundation of what home, and family, really mean to them. With no words needed, that 'I love you' moment reminds and anchors them each and every day, and that is powerful.

Autism, motherhood and photography

Sienna sums us up in magnetic poetry (children's version)
Just over a year and a half ago, I realised what my passion was. Is. Could be. It came to me suddenly, and clearly, and since then has constantly been percolating in the back of my mind. It's not something wildly different, for me, but rather something that has been gaining clarity progressively over the last couple of years. And something that is deeply important to me, both as a mother and a photographer.

The thing is, I am a professional photographer. It's taken me a long time shooting to get to this place, and I've technically been here for a few years now. While I have dabbled in fashion, commercial, nature, and I've enjoyed weddings as well, I feel that I am primarily a family and children portrait photographer. I really love it. Even before becoming a mother, I was always most excited by photographing children – so unpredictable, challenging and joyful.

The other thing is, I am a mother. I was a photographer first, but I've been a mum for over 11 years now. And for more than 6 of those years, I've been a particular type of mum, I guess you could say. An autism mother. I've written about my family before, and they are uniquely amazing and fascinating to me. Sometimes challenging, particularly when transitions or social demands push them past their comfort zone.

Sometimes I feel I need to clarify, I don't have my head in the sand either. Things aren't always easy, but they could be a lot harder too. Today it took an hour before my 9 year old would let me leave him at school. This morning my 11 year old wanted to curl up in the fetal position in the boot of our car because her drawing wasn't perfect, I had to hold her back so that I could take her into her regular appointment with her psychologist. My 5 year old screamed - and I mean really screamed - whenever the sunshine came through his side of the car during our drive home. This is all pretty typical stuff for our everyday life on the spectrum. But that's ok. We have moments. We move on. And I think they're overall pretty brilliant people.

And from here comes my clarity...

My heart feels most rewarded by the surge of love and meaning that I get from offering family photography to other families with autism, additional needs and special challenges. It feels gloriously important and beautiful to me, to be that person for a family, to be there to see them, to see their connection, their bond and their love. To be comfortable and relaxed enough that I react easily and lightly to any difficulties that arise during a photo session, to any uncertainty that comes in to play. I can give you that, the calm, the fun, the seeing of who you are. And, more importantly, the capturing of that.

This is something I can give, that I love to provide, which has value far beyond the cost of a session fee, or anything else. I can give a family a treasure, which is not only an acceptance, but rather a celebration of how wonderful they are. Real, flawed perhaps – as we all are – but true and together and beautiful in that. It's important, it's who your family is. It's your story. It's your wonderland.

This what I am going to do.

Not on the spectrum, but... reading about hyper-sensitivity

Since I have kids with autism, and Sienna also has an ADHD diagnosis as well as Aspergers, I have a few news pages that I follow on Facebook that are relevant to them. Today a link was posted to ADDItude Mag with an article on Hyper-sensitivity, as it is something that is often – while not a disorder, but rather a type – seen in people diagnosed with ADHD / ADD. On another Facebook post, a blogger I enjoy reading posted a comment on Myers-Briggs personality types, which ties in, for me, to the kind of self-understanding that helps with being very sensitive.

I am neither on the Autism spectrum (and yes, I've even done one of those basic online tests to check likelihood / similarities to ASD) nor do I have ADHD, though I have read a fair bit about them. Well, autism in particular. Anyhow ;) I don't believe myself to be on the spectrum of either of these conditions, but there are some traits I strongly empathise with. I've also read about the myers-briggs personality types, and the book 'The Highly Sensitive Person'. So, connecting with today's article didn't come as a surprise, but it is a good reminder.

One sentence that stood out a lot for me was this: “Prior to discovering my hypersensitivity, I perceived my over-the-top emotions as a character flaw. My mom would say, “Why can’t you get on an even keel?” As a child, I didn’t have an answer. This added to my already-low self-esteem.” I find this so interesting, and for a couple of reasons. One is the reminder that I really do fall clearly and undoubtedly into this category, which apparently includes an average of 15-20% of people.

There are no words that stand out more strongly to me from my childhood and youth than “you're too sensitive”, and they didn't stop just because I became an adult. But as a child, it was more confusing, because I didn't disagree, but didn't understand why was there something wrong with me? And also because feelings being 'wrong' doesn't make them go away. If something hurts, but it hurts because 'you're too sensitive', it still hurts, but then there is the added layer of it being wrong somehow. It was something I remember repeating in some of my angsty, sensitive teenage poetry – this idea that I was inherently wrong, but without being able to define what that wrong was, exactly.

It's a formative view of myself that I still struggle with, and so far have mostly just been able to work on recognising it. Changing those thought patterns is a battle for another season, I guess. Recognition, though, has its own strength. Which brings me to another part of the comment above that I found so interesting - “prior to discovering my hypersensitivity”. The next paragraph in the article quotes Elaine N. Aron, Ph.D (authorof The Highly Sensitive Person) - “Recognizing their high sensitivity can help people stop feeling bad about themselves.”

Well that is definitely harder said than done, but I do get what they're saying. And I totally agree, as this is the basis for getting any kind of diagnostic assessment really - such as autism, or ADHD as well. Further understanding can help, both with understanding the needs of the person and with improving their self esteem as a result of that understanding. The Myers-Briggs personality types helped me figure this out when I was a teenager, and a psychologist who saw me at 17 – on the recommendation of my bookshop boss, due to my extreme shyness – only saw me twice but helped me see that I was just a different type of person than most people around me.

My first couple of Myers-Briggs tests showed me as an INFP, a rare and sensitive personality type. Introverted, Intuitive, Feeling, Perceiving, and at 100% of the scale for introversion, and almost that high for intuitive. A few years later, the ratio shifted a little and I've been an INFJ ever since – very interesting, as my slight P preference earlier on shifted to a more decisive J type as I grew older. This was perhaps also in response to being with my husband since that time, as he was decidedly a P personality type, whereas I had only slightly leaned that way.

It all sounds rather more serious than I really view it, which is as a great lesson in understanding and acceptance. When applied to myself, the acceptance – deep, instinctive, self-acceptance – is a lot harder than the understanding for me, but they are all tied together. And also with this third point which drew me in straight away, which is that “Emotional pain and physical pain are experienced in the same part of the brain.” Which explains why it can feel so all-encompassing to literally radiate pain from the darkness at the centre of myself, to the point where it can be felt by other intuitive people, but feel so ridiculous about it when there is no clear wrong thing to be blamed.

I may be veering off into talking about depression, here, but this is the thing. I suffer depression, I guess, in that I fit the criteria more often than not because of my thoughts and feelings about myself. But clinically... it's not purely chemical. It's this inherent wrongness that I've never been able to understand and accept about myself, which is actually not wrongness at all. It's just being different. Being hyper-sensitive.

Having “all of the feelings” (for some reason I imagine those words spoken by Tina Fey?!).

Clouds of grey sensitivity aside, the silver lining I see is that I've never felt like I quite fit. But I've always found some kindred spirits along the way. And I feel so much empathy for my kids, my amazing, fascinating, brilliant Autism spectrum kids, as a direct result of this sensitivity. I feel for them. All the time. And so I think it makes me a pretty good Autism mum. That, at least, is something good. And I can accept that.