I have been immersed in the world of autism since my son was diagnosed with Aspergers.
While autism can present herculean challenges for some, many people with the condition have remarkable strengths. Singular figures from history who were likely on the autism spectrum include Michelangelo, Isaac Newton, Mozart, Jane Austen, Darwin, Einstein, Emily Dickinson and Warhol. Temple Grandin was only half joking when she said that without autism, humans would still be “standing around in a cave, chatting and socializing and not getting anything done.”
One thing these groundbreakers shared (on top of intense passion and focus), was seeing the world in a new way; they were the epitome of “out of the box thinkers.” A potential downside of seeing things differently from most people is confusion and anxiety resulting from not understanding others’ motivations (autism being partially a social communication disorder). A popular website by and for the autism community is called wrongplanet.net.
Most people with autism are not geniuses. But each looks at the world in a unique way, often refreshing in its originality, disregard for convention and lack of pretense. We need to better understand the autistic, not only to make the world a kinder place for them, but to broaden our own perspectives.
Visible Spectrum is a book project that pairs portraits of autistic people with narratives written by the subjects or their parents (due to be published in Europe in November ‘21 by Kehrer Verlag). It is part of the “neurodiversity” movement, which sees autism as a disability and a different way of being rather than as a disease or disorder that must be cured. Like the broader disability rights movement, it focuses on removing access barriers in society so that disabled people can be included, rather than on «fixing» disabled people.
Elise, Jordan Lake School of the Arts, 2014
Elise: “Just because we see things differently, doesn’t mean we can’t see beauty.”
Elise’s mother: “Elise is a smart, compassionate and gentle soul. She primarily struggles with social understanding. It takes her a bit longer to make friends because she is often perceived as being aloof. However, she transforms into a typical tween once any initial social hurdles have been overcome. She loves talking about fashion, Star Wars, YouTube videos, boys and everything in between! She’s very caring, respectful and protective of her friends and they are the same toward her.”
Graham at the Hotel, 2014
Graham, like many autistic people, had obsessive “special interests,” especially when he was younger. By kindergarten, he had an encyclopedic knowledge of the American Revolutionary War and could recite precisely how many soldiers were killed and wounded per side for numerous battles. Here he has moved on to World War II and is enraptured in a new book on tanks after a visit to a Museum.
Joshua S. with his Mother, 2018
Joshua is a hardworking student who loves nature and blowing bubbles. Stigma about autism is common everywhere, but is especially prevalent in communities of Black and other people of color. Joshua’s mother has given a talk on “Parenting an Autistic Child of Color” that addresses particular issues affecting these families and also seeks to normalize the subject of autism.
Adam is 6 feet tall, non-verbal and developmentally mostly on a toddler level. His family had to move to a different state due to the lack of support services for adults with autism.
His mother says she used to be embarrassed by his impromptu dance parties in the frozen food aisles of the grocery store, but now these are one of her favorite things about him.
After graduating from college, Will said that his greatest accomplishment was having made friends “who I love deeply, and who deeply love me.” His goal is to work with immigrants, because “being a stranger in a strange land is something I relate to very well.” He joined the Peace Corps to teach English in Armenia.
Graham Wrestling with His Cousin, 2015
It is a myth that autistic people don’t like to interact with others. Most enjoy interacting with people they know well.
Chandler has overcome many challenges, including being non verbal. His parents heard that children retained singsong better than words, so they communicated with him in song for the first few years of his life. He is now extremely verbal and says “singing equals peace.” He asked if I would like him to pose like Mona Lisa.
Grayson with his Sister, 2015
Autistic people often notice details and patterns that others do not. Their unusual perspectives can be highly creative and encourage new ways of looking at things.
Businesses, and technology companies in particular, are starting to hire autistic people for their creative problem solving abilities, as well as their tendency to be skilled with computers.
Mia with Mattock, 2016
Most people on the autism spectrum experience high levels of anxiety due to sensory sensitivities, difficulties with communication, and lack of social understanding. Mia, who is comforted by the feel of rubber, fur and the motions of swinging a mattock, is wearing what she calls her “life suit,” which she puts on “when life gets to be too much.”
In addition to liking technology and golf, she wants to be a model and a scientist, “maybe the kind that wears a hazmat suit.”
Lia’s mother: “Lia is full of love and curiosity. She wants to be a Pre-K teacher and all of her screen time is spent watching YouTube videos of curriculum in early childhood development. The biggest myth about autism is that people on the spectrum prefer to be alone and don’t have emotions; in reality, they are so full of emotions and empathy they are often overwhelmed and shut down. We have so far to go in understanding autism, but the first step is visibility.”
Mary Berridge (1964) is an American photographer whose work has been exhibited in many galleries and museums including the Museum of Modern Art in NY and the De Young Museum in San Francisco. She is interested in how people find meaning in challenging circumstances.
Mary’s work has received several awards – among them: a Guggenheim Fellowship, a NY Foundation for the Arts Fellowship, the Lange-Taylor Prize, an Aaron Siskind Fellowship, and a Documentary Project Fund Award. Her photographs have been published in numerous publications, including The NY Times Magazine, Harper’s, TIME, FotoNostrum, Der Spiegel and Raw View. She has published two books: A Positive Life: Portraits of Women Living with HIV (Running Press, 1997), and On the Eve, Moscow, 1998 (Blue Sky Books, 2014).
A book of Visible Spectrum: Portraits from the World of Autism, will be released in Europe in November (and in the U.S. in May) by the German publisher Kehrer.