This post is both for photographers and parents of children with autism and sensory issues. I have had the opportunity to photograph many children that function with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), or deal with sensory issues due to challenges like Developmental Dyspraxia. I have heard from MULTIPLE families with autistic children that they were scared of investing in high-end photography because they were pretty sure that their child would melt down, that the photo session would be a waste of time, and that they would be flushing money down the toilet. If you don’t understand what I’m talking about, read about one mom’s experience HERE. Reading this broke my heart, and I have such a huge desire that these families get images of their children that they can cherish. So I decided to put together some pointers to help you get some great photos of your beautiful child! And hopefully it will help photographers better understand the special needs of these awesome kids that struggle with sensory issues.
1. Choose your photographer wisely. Just because someone takes amazing photos, that doesn’t mean that they understand how to handle a child with sensory issues. If you have a support network of families dealing with autism, ask them for referrals for a photographer that they have successfully used. Get photographers on the phone and talk to them about their experience shooting kids with sensory needs. Ask them about how they handle sensory kids and if their answers don’t sit well with you, then move on.
2. Make sure your photographer knows as much as possible. The more you can tell your photographer, the better. If your child doesn’t like being touched, tell them. If your child is sensitive to sound, tell them. If your child absolutely loves something (like Elmo or trucks or soccer), tell your photographer so they can engage them. They won’t have the working knowledge of your child that you have gained… so make sure you help inform them.
3. Photographers need to understand each child’s limitations. Many kids with autism have big personal boundaries and you need to respect that. New people can be particularly scary, so give them time to warm up to you. Often these children avoid eye contact… so expecting them to “sit and smile at the camera” isn’t fair. Instead of posed smiley photos, get images of them interacting with their family or interacting with you…. family tickles, walking and holding hands, running towards you, hugging their parents, etc. And please do your best to read the child and take a break if they’re melting down.
4. Choose a good time of day. For photographers, the best time of day to take photos is first thing in the morning, or during the last hour of sunlight (called the Golden Hour). But if that’s a time of day that your child is tired or grumpy, don’t let a photographer push you into shooting then. It is way more important for you to shoot during a time that your child is happiest… and the photographer should be capable enough to plan accordingly.
5. Think about the location. Where you shoot can make or break a session for a sensory kid. New locations can be extremely scary for them. Kids with touch and tactile issues would not do well in fields with tall grass. Kids with aversions to loud and sudden noises wouldn’t do well in areas near traffic, trains, or other loud noises. Portrait studios may not be ideal with the bright flashing strobes. Perhaps your munchkin is most comfortable at home! What about a session in his or her own environment or your local park?
6. Think about wardrobe. Don’t get me wrong… I’m a sucker for cute clothes and coordinating color schemes for family photos. But if you child has issues with tags on their shirt, or button-up tops, or things with zippers, then your photo session is not the time to push the issue. Make sure their clothing is comfortable, and if it’s something new let them wear it for a few times before your session so you know that they’re okay with the outfit. And don’t forget to dress your child for the weather… no child does well if they’re too cold or too hot.
7. Don’t forget their lovey! They will probably be in a new place with new people and that lovey will bring comfort. And hey… if that is the object that they have ADORED their entire childhood, wouldn’t you want it in a photo or two?
8. Photographers… give them some power to direct the photoshoot. If they don’t want to sit and cuddle with mom, let them get up and run around. Make a game of it! If they HAVE to go sit on the tractor (and it’s safe to do so), then let them! Allowing them some freedom and leeway will help earn their trust. Also, when they’re showing you that they need a break, take a break! But it also means the parents should remember to bring things like snacks (preferably ones that won’t stain clothing) and drinks.
9. Make sure they understand what will happen. If you talk about the session before hand and let them know what to expect, that will help them adjust to this new situation! Let them know a person will be taking their photos, and it should be lots of fun. Let them know you’ll be playing and singing and exploring… and afterwards you hope to get treats! Then make sure that you follow through!
10. Have fun! You will get the best photos if you have fun with your child during the session. Tickles, favorite songs, ring-around-the-rosey, snuggles, throwing little ones up in the air… these are the memories worth capturing. And if your child melts down… please don’t stress about it. Don’t be embarrassed. Any child photographer has seen their share of melt downs. Trust me. I always say that kids let you know when the shoot is over… and they make it known loud and clear.
Now go and get some beautiful pictures of your perfect child!