In 2017, the Cullis Wade Depot Art Gallery in Mississippi State University showcased photography by local children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in a group art exhibition, Through Their Eyes. Compact digital cameras were distributed to nine families who agreed to participate so children could capture informal scenes from everyday life over a period of several months.
The children and other family members were given a wide range of opportunities to take candid photographs when and where they chose. The hope was that this achievement would allow viewers to understand how children with ASD view the world in unusual ways.
An Evening of Art
The 300 photographs on display were surprising in terms of subject matter, as well as vantage point and composition. Each young artist was recognized and given the opportunity to write a brief description of their artwork. At the art reception, families gathered to celebrate a community accomplishment. There was a “safe space” corner where children could enter a comfort zone away from bright lights and loud noises.
The two curators of the show, who are both scientists and mothers of children with autism, created a Facebook page (@LensofAutism) to document the process and promote the event. Starkville Area Arts Council provided a grant to support the occasion. The art exhibition statement reads, “Our children are autistic. What does that mean? To many it is a word that defines and confines them, to us it is a gift, a chance to see the world from a new perspective.”
In 2018, I viewed the exhibition’s second showing at Art in Public Places, Starkville Area Arts Council. I asked curators Jennifer Seltzer and Diana Outlaw about the photography on display.
Rowan, age nine, and his sister Jacqueline, age seven, have photographs in the show. Rowan’s artist statement reads, “Rowan’s extreme attention to detail is astounding and reflected in his photos.” Some children with autism can focus on objects from unusual vantage points. Rowan’s mother explained that Rowan took the photograph of a paper bag with popcorn while watching his sister in a Brazilian jiujitsu competition. This inspired his photo, Bag of Popcorn.
Another child, Arya, has several photographs. When I asked which was her favorite, she pointed to one of her sitting in the backseat of a car with a view of her legs only. “Why?” I asked. “Because of my knees,” she said. Her artist statement explained, “Arya has always marched to her own beat, and she is one of the toughest and bravest people we have ever known.” When I asked Arya which was the most important photograph, she pointed to a photograph of her face. “I took that one,” her mother said. These statements by Arya demonstrate how making art with other creative people can be an opportunity for a person with autism to establish emotional bonds.
Suggestions for Photography Lessons
One book about how to introduce photography to youth is called Go Photo! An Activity Book for Kids by Alice Proujansky (Aperture, 2016). Its playful format includes tips on how to take photographs. Recommendations such as “mix-up lessons,” “don’t get caught up in the technical stuff,” “move around,” “decide what goes in the picture,” “take lots of pictures,” “be still,” and “zoom with your feet” are helpful suggestions that are open-ended and therefore not restrictive about developing one’s own style as an artist. There is minimal text with playful illustrations and key concepts to grasp and practice. With playful step-by-step benchmarks, it makes learning easy for children—by themselves or with parents or other children.
Recommendations for Art Teachers
Expose students to the concept of street photography as a way to spontaneously capture a significant event in time.
Have students use their camera phones to record moments in time that capture a particular sentiment or mood.
Encourage students to include people or objects to indicate a particular dynamic moment.
Ensure that students think about composition, scale, proportion, and emphasis.
Have students include visual rhythm as an important principal of design.
Sharing Creative Experiences
Children should be reminded that candid photographs can capture spontaneous images of objects and people. An exhibition of children’s photography gives a community the chance to share original artwork, and encourages discussion of the creative experience at the opening reception. The result is an opportunity to expand society’s preconceptions of children with ASD.
Gillian J. Furniss, Ed.D. is a visual artist and art educator. To learn more about her work with children with ASD, please visit her website at www.GillianFurniss.com.
Sustainability and environmental issues are highlighted through a variety of lessons that use recycled, upcycled, or renewed materials. Students compete in a fashion art competition and design clothing from sustainable materials; utilize recycled computer parts to build their very own robots; create Picasso-inspired cardboard relief sculptures; and more.