Autism on Picture Day

When I was in the hospital for my unexpected heart surgery a few years back, one of the few personal items that I had from home was a picture of my children. A month prior, we had all headed to our local mall for an old fashioned portrait at the picture place.

My daughter, at four, and her brother, at about one and a half, were all decked out like Cabbage Patch dolls. They both looked so happy with Olivia appearing to be a bit more stoic while Lucas’s face beamed with happiness. I propped that framed photo up on that hovering tray attached to my bed and spent the day staring at it with a smile.

The reason it made me smile went beyond the natural feeling of pride that parents have for their kids. It was because I knew that my son’s gleeful expression and outstretched hands weren’t an adorable attempt to imitate a Precious Moments figurine. No. This moment in time was simply the opening frame of what would be a maniacal dash from the portrait studio and down the halls of the mall. It was all captured by the grace of this photographer’s flash, which must have had the speed of a hummingbird’s wings.

I chased that kid up and down the corridors like a mad man. The whole thing had a Bugs Bunny quality to it. If he painted a big hole in the wall and jumped into it in order to escape my chase, I wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised. That rascally rabbit.

picLucas’s Autism makes pictures incredibly difficult if you try to go about them in the classic way. Honestly, my son is a busy guy. He doesn’t have time to sit and pose. He has places to explore and iPads to swipe. Sitting in a sweater like a Norman Rockwell painting isn’t on his agenda.

That following Summer, we decided to give things another whirl with a more relaxed setting. Instead of heading to a place that takes photos, we’d just have the photo-taking come to us. My wife found a local woman who marketed herself as an “Autism Friendly Photographer.”

To her, though, “Autism Friendly” must mean that she doesn’t try to knife fight people with Autism because it definitely didn’t mean that she had any knowledge, training, or understanding of how to photograph someone who might not respond to traditional requests. I watched as Lucas would dart under tables and behind curtains. I also watched as the photographer stood there with her head in her hands.

So, I stepped in. I called over to my son and he stopped short to see what I needed. His sister had been quietly standing with a smile for over an eternity and I slowly coaxed him back by her side. As soon as this happened, the Autism Friendly photographer nearly leapt up with excitement and came over with a barrage of clicks. That’s how the pictures were taken that day.

And we paid her for it. That still sticks with me a bit.

I learned that day that all we need for Lucas’s photographs is us. Especially at a younger age, my son wouldn’t follow certain directions from strangers. I knew that. Yet, as a new parent to a child with Autism, I assumed that the world was littered with magical barbers and wizard-like photographers who could step in and, with a snap of the fingers, make him do as they say. At least, that’s what I hoped.

That’s not realistic, though. It was up to me to teach him what it meant to pose for a nice picture. It took weeks, months, and years to get him to look at a camera, even briefly while we clicked his image. Over time, it started to happen more and more. Lucas understood what “take a picture” meant and would know what was expected of him.

Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on how you see it, he began to associate waving with pictures. So, nearly every picture that he’s truly posing for involves him with an outstretched wave. There are tons of them. Depending on how close he is to the camera, it sometimes looks like he’s taking a selfie. Occasionally, I will reach in and put his hand down, repeating, “No, Lucas. We don’t have to wave for every picture.” He fights to put his hand back up, which he thinks is hilarious. Soon, he’s laughing, and it makes the whole picture even better.

selfieSure, there are still awkward moments like family vacations. Seeing a great location, I will try to set my camera up to take a group selfie on ten second delay. Seeing this, a stranger will offer to take our picture and, with a small knot in my stomach, I will agree. Then this happens.

OK, everybody. Look up here. Ready? Look here. Hey buddy. Look over here. One, two…up here, buddy. Come on. Over here. He’s not looking.

Finally, after internal debate and enough time to realize that this is the best shot we’re ever going to get, I will tell this phone snapping stranger to abandon ship.

Yeah. He’s not gonna look. You can just take it.

I’m reminded of this every year when my son comes home with an envelope of school pics and, every year, they usually go untouched. Sometimes they feature him with a shocked look as if someone popped a balloon and then quickly hit the camera button. We had one year where his body was facing the other direction and he was peering back at the photographer over his shoulder. We’ve also had plenty of half-closed eyes Garfield shots to pour through too. In a nutshell, posed pictures just aren’t his thing.

That’s fine with me, though. It’s the new golden age of photography and, thanks to my tethered iPhone, I literally have thousands of pictures of him and his sister anyway. Sure, none of them might be him leaning on a pillar with a tuxedo while holding flowers. But who needs that? That’s not him anyway. I have pictures of my little man running past me with his iPad and laughing with more happiness than I can personally fathom. That’s the real Lucas and, for me, that’s the perfect picture every time.