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A New, Visual Way To Connect With Autism

“I'm always seeking to reach him and catch little glimpses here and there”

There can be a devastating moment between a young autistic child and his or her parents, when the struggle to connect can seem insurmountable. One father famously did it through the animated characters in Disney movies. Now, a Minnesota-based photographer and mom Kate Miller-Wilson is using her art to give us an intimate look at the daily ups and downs of living with the disorder.

By taking beautiful portraits of her 10-year-old son Eian, who has high-functioning autism, Miller-Wilson teaches us about autism’s wide spectrum, while also learning more about her son, herself, and the disorder. During Autism Awareness month in April, GOOD had the chance to chat with her about her son, her photography, and how images tell stories that words sometimes can’t.

What inspired you to start this project?

My inspiration came from daily life with my son. He has a unique perspective on the world, often one that brings out the beauty or wonder in the ordinary. Being his parent is also a unique perspective; there's this feeling that he's always on the other side of this barrier that sort of varies in thickness depending on the day. I'm always seeking to reach him and catch little glimpses here and there. Since art is really about sharing perspectives, a photo series seemed like a natural choice.

What are some common misconceptions people have about autism?

I want to show the nuances of autism, that it isn't as simple as people might assume. I think one of the most common misconceptions is that people sometimes assume they understand autism if they know of someone who has it. There's a very wise saying in the autism community: ‘If you've met one person with autism, you've met one person with autism.’ It truly is a spectrum.

I've had day care centers turn my son down when they heard the diagnosis, despite the fact that he's very well-behaved. People hear the label sometimes and think in extremes, but the truth is that the vast majority of kids on the spectrum fall in the middle. And there's even day-to-day variability. My son is technically “high-functioning,” but there are days when he really struggles, and I know that label doesn't apply. That's a challenge for individuals on the spectrum, as well as those who love them and teach them.

How has photography changed your relationship with your children?

I think a lot about the effect of my photography on my kids’ lives. Like many people, I started out wanting to document their childhoods. Then along the way, it’s kind of turned into something else—a way for me to express my love for them and the parenting experience, but also a way for me to be an individual artist and not just their mom. I think in a lot of ways, it's good for us. I take them to neat places we might not otherwise go on the off chance I'll get a shot there. And I tell them stories while I shoot, which they love.

I let my eldest son talk about whatever interests him at the moment, which he really enjoys (with autism, it’s more of a lecture than a back-and-forth conversation, so he doesn't get to do that a lot). Sometimes, he and I go out shooting, just the two of us, and I let him tell me which way to turn the car and where to go. It’s a way for us to relate. At the same time, I have to guard against always having a lens between us; it’s something I struggle with. And I’m not above bribing my “models” with screen time or a treat to get that perfect shot. In general, though, they are sharing part of themselves with me as we work on a photo, and I am honored by that.

All photos courtesy Kate Miller-Wilson. For more, be sure to follow her on Instagram and Flickr.

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