The whole reason that I (Rachel) started into photography was because my oldest two boys are autistic. It was almost impossible to get a decent family portrait. For almost a decade we went without because the harsh flashing of the chain studios and the bewilderment of those taking our photographs just was impossible to overcome.
As our family grew, I became more and more restless about this state of affairs and got a camera and started to voraciously learn all I could about photography so that I could capture our family’s memories and HOPEFULLY get a family portrait.
A few years ago, the first portrait was realized and I am overjoyed. Crystal took the images and I did some head-swapping and it hangs proudly in my home. I have since also gotten an image of all 6 kids after Max, my 3-year-old, was born. And then another with all 6. And then I got one with all 7, just a bit ago. So I am blessed many times over now. I also have realized the importance of having images of my family and the sadness I felt over not having one, and so I do all I can to photograph families I know with autism, so that they have one less thing in their worry bucket. So, I’ve had a lot of opportunities now to photograph and interact with these wonderful families.
I wanted to write today to those in the position of photographer to these amazing families, because it can be a little daunting to enter into these situations.
The main point I want to stress today is…don’t stress! I know it is natural to feel a little trepidation at the thought of going into an unfamiliar situation. So I want to make it less mysterious.
Autism is a spectrum disorder, which means that every child is different. Some are more severe and some are much milder. What works perfectly in one situation won’t be the answer in the next situation, and ya know, that’s ok! It’s just like any other family, really. Some kids are slow to warm up, some want to follow you home. It is important to listen to the parents about what their child likes or doesn’t like, etc. But taking family portraits is likely a fairly new situation to the whole family, so the parents might not know exactly how their child will take to it. So here are a few tips that have worked well for me.
1) Don’t stress.
When stress starts, it is easy to escalate. Parents can feel it, the kids can feel it and it spirals. So feeling calm and loose is a great way to perpetuate those good feelings. And ya know what? I can speak from personal experience here, these families will be THRILLED with just having ANYTHING, so don’t go in with undue stress, because it will throw you off.
2) Talk to mom and dad ahead of time
This way you know if Jr hates grass on his bare feet, or is sensitive to sounds etc. That will help you know how to be. Also talk about favorites. I have yet to find a child with autism who doesn’t just LOVE something. That way you can brush up a little on trains, or Buzz Lightyear or whatever so you can chat about it as you take pictures. That is a great way to get the child to look at you naturally and smile. Find out what makes them tick. Often times things like Thomas the Train and Buzz Lightyear, etc. are big favorites and you can find (or borrow) Pez dispensers which fit conveniently in your hot shoe. That helps the kids look into your camera and smile, and it is a built in reward mechanism for them! Awesome on both counts!
3) When talking to mom, tell her to talk about the upcoming shoot to her kids.
Walk though what will happen (“We will be getting dressed up. You will be wearing your red shirt and blue jeans. When we get there, she will have a camera and she will want to take pictures of you feeling happy.”) I find the more the child has heard about what is coming up, the easier it is to settle into the routine.
4) Speak calmly.
There might be some children who need you to be boisterous, but starting calmly will prevent an accidental overwhelming of the child. Lots of sensitivities to sounds, social situations, new situations, etc. So easing into the situation is a great way to go. Talking calmly and softly, using natural light where possible, and going at a slower pace is a great way to earn the child’s trust.
5) Reward liberally.
Ask mom to bring some of the child’s favorite motivators. It could be fish crackers, M&Ms, etc. When things are going well, let the child know how pleased you are and give rewards.
6) Enlist the rest of the family.
Explain to mom and dad and the rest of the kids that you are relying on all of them to do doing what they need to be doing so that the second the child with autism is looking, you can get that shot. Make sure they know that they are so important to you and that you are partners with them in getting this done. (Mom and dad are often the ones who need the most reminding! They want to look at their child and admonish them often and so when the child is looking, mom is looking off and talking. Oops!)
7) Practice head-swapping.
Ha ha. I know, I know, but it can really help reduce your stress if you know you can combine the best couple shots into one amazing image.
8) Embrace the fact that sometimes...
setting up a shot where eye-contact is not needed can be easier on everyone and give you a beautiful window into reality. I often have to get those shots where my boys are not looking right into the eyes of others or into the camera. It's not comfortable for them and it can be hard to coordinate them looking into the camera for long periods of time. But some of my favorite images are the final shots from these situations.
I know that lots of people love the images of everyone interacting, but often an image with everyone looking is what people think they are after. So being able to even create that in post is a great skill to have. We have a super tutorial on head swapping on our YouTube page!