April is Autism Awareness Month and Isaac’s school does many things to celebrate. One of the things they do is hang posters in the halls that offer words of support to parents and caregivers of autistic children. When I saw the posters last year, honestly, they shook me up a little. I didn’t necessarily like seeing the word “Autism!” everyday when I dropped Isaac off at school. And some of the messages that the posters were communicating, I didn’t find supportive…though I am convinced that was exactly the intention of the staff: to provide a VERY supportive place for me and my family. Somehow the intention and the effect weren’t matching up for me.
I waited for a few weeks for the uneasy feeling to settle. I couldn’t believe I was so rattled by this. They were just posters. I was working full time then, and didn’t have much free time to hem and haw about this. But hem and haw I did. I ended up thinking through what I thought would make a supportive poster and I made a few of my own in photoshop. At the time I was just doing it so I could process the uneasy feeling and move on. And making the posters did end up being a very cathartic and healing process for me.
But, I also reached out to the school to say something along the lines of “your staff is incredibly supportive and have given my family so much. But…I don’t like the posters.” And so this year, when Autism Awareness Month was looming on the horizon, the staff asked me to help. In fact, they sent letters out to all parents asking anyone that was interested to come and help make posters.
When I made my mock-up posters last Spring, I thought it would be lovely to have a series of these… a series of posters all saying “My Child is Autistic. My Child is Beautiful.” I wanted to showcase many beautiful faces of autism. And so when the poster-making organization began this year I contacted the social worker in charge and pitched my idea. I showed her my examples and asked if I could loop in other parents…and she thought it was great.
So I carefully wrote out a letter to parents saying, among other things, “I am looking for other parents of autistic children to join me in saying: My child is autistic. And my child is beautiful. If this is something that is true for you, I would like to create a poster featuring your child.” There was a permission slip at the bottom giving me permission to photograph their child and use that image to make a poster.
The big question though, was who would agree to this? If someone else asked me, I’m not sure I would agree to it. I certainly wouldn’t have been comfortable putting the word “autism” next to a photo of Andrew when he was Isaac’s age. But, we are all at different places in our journey…and what takes years for some, does not take years for everyone. The social worker sent me daily emails. We have four permission slips. We have seven. We have eleven permission slips. Eleven!
I was so nervous on the morning of the photo shoot. And I learned later, I should have been nervous. It was perfectly reasonable to be nervous, because this was hard work.
The social worker and I picked out a well lit, lightly populated classroom to bring children for their photographs. Except, most of the children couldn’t be moved. It was too upsetting to them to leave their classroom. It was too upsetting for some to even leave their seat. And so I jumped in, and did my best with no control over the lighting and no control over the background and very little control over the expression the child would give me. Teachers were jumping around behind me, trying to get their students to look up, smile, react. Some teachers pulled up a favorite youtube video on their phones and held the phones above my shoulder. Some students were wrestling and tumbling with each other, kicking toys, yelling “no photos!” Ha! Like I haven’t heard that before! So, I got down, and sat on the floor and used a calm, soothing voice, and told them they didn’t need to do a thing. Just play. Just play with the toys.
I got home exhausted, strung out, and very, very worried. I felt like I owed it to these parents to have good shots of their kids. They are trusting me and I need to deliver. And I don’t quite have the technical know-how to compensate for low lighting issues. How did these photos turn out??
I spent about a day and half editing the photos. Taking distracting things out of the background. Making the horrible yellow walls behind the kids less horrible. Adding light. Cropping. There was one challenging little fellow that I ended up sending to my friend Caitlin for some help. She was able to remove some worry lines, turn up the corners of his mouth the slightest bit, improve his color. And then, I sent them to be printed.
All the while my inner critic was being just plain mean! Arg. Dang inner critic.
They came back from the printer during Spring Break and yesterday I took them to the school to be hung. And the reaction was tremendous. The little guy I was most worried about got the most response. They all know that that little guy is a tough-ie and they told me his school picture didn’t turn out well at all. His mom will LOVE this. The principal said she was going to contact the central office to have them take a look. As I was hanging them teachers would walk by and do double takes as they recognized one of their students. “Oh my goodness!! Look at George!! He looks great! He’s SOO hard to photograph!” and I would think to myself “I KNOW!!!” but I would say “he really is a beautiful boy.” Because he is.
But the best response was when the teacher of the most challenging class in the school walked by. Holding the hand of the most challenging student. The student I was so worried about. And she looked up at the photos and her eyes filled with tears.
Oh my goodness. So, so rewarding. So moving.
Today when I dropped off Isaac, I learned that other parents have seen the posters and are asking if their child can be added to the project.
My response? I would love to.