Making Autistic family photos more accessible

Why we deserve more than a lifetime of forced smiles at the camera and how photographers can be more accommodating during Autistic family photos.

[Note: The photos included in this article are meant to represent my style of family photography and do not suggest the diagnosis of any clients pictured.]

Recently, I had the informative experience of being on the other side of the lens. Over the course of nearly two hours, a photojournalist led me around my home for portraits, asking me to “relax” countless times. “Shake out your energy,” they said, after asking me to take deep breaths and realizing that wasn’t leading to the results they wanted.

I found myself infodumping about how, actually, Autistic people like myself have a complicated relationship with breathing. Many of us are prone to sleep apnea and use what my evaluator Matt Lowry calls the Autistic accent or “monotone, disjointed pedantic speech with tangential conversation and difficulty modulating breathing as we speak.”

“Take a deep breath,” they said in response.


I’m no stranger to being asked to breathe deeply. As someone who had two labor inductions as a result of high blood pressure, I’ve endured 18 months of being asked to relax from well-meaning midwives. I’d wonder what was wrong with me while trying to visualize a quiet day at the beach as my box breathing released with the air of the blood pressure cuff. Why couldn’t I just relax?

If asked, I could’ve provided the photographer with tangible ways they could’ve helped me relax. Arriving on time. Helping me know what to expect. Showing past visual examples of a certain pose if a prompt isn’t working. Being receptive to my ideas, even if they aren’t what is traditionally encouraged.  Nixing the photos all together and watching Married at First Sight together while we drink Bubble tea.

As a parent who has cringed while hearing relax fall from my lips on more than one occasion, I have realized that I say it as a means to comfort myself. Similarly to how I parrot things like, “It’s okay,” when a fever spikes or one of our children has an unexpected fall. While I’d love to live in a world where saying “it’s okay,” actually makes it true, it’s not my place to decide what makes something okay for another human. Trying to do so can often invalidate and minimize what others are actually going through.

In this case, asking a client to relax assumes that they are the problem. When in reality, the lack of curiosity around why a client’s breathing may quicken could be further examined. My PDA (Pervasive Drive for Autonomy or as some may prefer, Pathological Demand Avoidance) kicks in quickly when a stranger who has been making me uncomfortable starts to tell me how to breathe. 

There’s this idea that as the photographer you are meant to take the lead and direct. While that can be true for many, I find myself encouraging clients to take the lead in terms of how they’d like to be supported. Letting me know what feels good for them. For some, that might mean not making eye contact with each other or the camera. For others, it might look like keeping people in motion so they feel most comfortable. Instead of saying phrases like, “act natural,” we can instead work on ensuring that clients feel safe enough to allow themselves to open up. 


A photo of me in grade school making an uncomfortable smile during my piano recital.

My masked smile. I had meltdowns and shutdowns leading up to piano recitals, until I eventually quit after 8 years because I couldn’t bear performing live.

While being photographed, I was repeatedly suggested poses that felt inorganic to me. I shared how as an Autistic person, I often find myself in broken doll positions that some might find “weird,” but that to me, feel more sincere. At one point, I suggested I interlace my fingers in a way that felt comfortable to me and was told by the photographer, “Anything but that.” 

I was immediately brought back to the fake smile I performed for the camera from childhood into adulthood. That deer-in-the-headlights stare, internally grimacing while dragging out the word cheese. Sometime my face would twitch. As I got older, my fake smile would morph into an exaggerated, scrunched grin that made my cheek muscles grow sore instantaneously.

One prompt I was continuously given by the photographer was to look just out of frame and think about all of the amazing things I’ve accomplished. Immediate panic. What does that mean? Should I be softly smiling? Smizing? Beaming full-blown joy and pride? Straight-faced? I don’t really feel emotions on my face the way that society expects me to, so prompts like those can confuse me and feel inauthentic.

Having the roles reversed in this way made me value the intimacy I’m able to accomplish with clients as a wedding and family photographer. On a certain level, they trust me to create a safer space for them to explore their different marginalized identities and how that may or may not affect their session. 

After this experience, I couldn’t shake feeling misunderstood as an Autistic person being photographed. I wanted to put my discomfort to use by writing a piece about how to make family photo sessions more accessible for Autistic clients.

If you’re interested in how this topic can be applied to wedding photographers, feel free to read “32 Ways Photographers Can Better Accommodate Autistic Marriers,” which you can find on my photography blog.

Whether you’re an allistic (non-Autistic) or Autistic photographer looking to make your family sessions more inclusive—or an Autistic person who has dreaded having their photos taken—I’m here to talk through the many ways we could be doing better.

As an obvious aside, it’s important to acknowledge that the Autistic community is not a monolith. While this advice may ring true for some (and not at all for others), it is best to ask clients directly what they need in terms of support.


The Autism Spectrum

The Autism Spectrum, a graphic by Matt Lowry

A graphic comparing what people may thing the Autism spectrum looks like, compared to a graphic created by Matt Lowry which visualizes the spectrum.

As some stage setting, first I think it is important to get acclimated with the Autism spectrum. The graphic on the left is what many people think the Autism spectrum looks like, with one end being less Autistic and the other being more Autistic.

In reality, the spectrum actually looks like the wheel graphic on the right, which my evaluator, Matt Lowry, created.

The DSM-5, the medical test for formal diagnosis, outlines the criteria for Autism as a list of deficits. Matt Lowry, co-host of The Autistic Culture Podcast, encourages us to reframe Autistic criteria by offering strengths-based descriptions.

I want to emphasize the importance of using language from an affirming, strengths-based approach, like this visual does.

So rather than saying something like “Shannon often talks excessively” we could say “Shannon has differences in communication, including talking passionately.”

Or instead of “Shannon does not seem to listen when spoken to directly,” we could say, “Shannon has differences in body language, including looking away, stimming, and moving while listening.”

Lowry often points out that when working with an Autistic child, you’re usually working with an Autistic parent as well (all the way up the family tree), whether or not they realize it. Research shows that the heritability rate of Autism is higher than 90%. Because of this, much of the advice offered here can likely apply to a large percentage of the adults being photographed as well.


Co-creating a comfortable environment

An Asian American family having fun together at a park during a maternity session in the Philadelphia suburbs.

Prep work + expectation sensitivity

  • A client’s autonomy and consent is crucial. If they are old enough to share, ask children if they even want to be photographed before booking the session. Continue to involve them by asking what they want to wear, where they’d like to be photographed, and any activities they might like to engage in. Giving children some control in instances like these can lead to a greater sense of independence.
  • Prior to the session, clients should not be total strangers to you. It can be beneficial to know things like: Their pronouns (only if they have them and feel safe sharing), what they enjoy doing as a family, and their support needs.
  • Ask clients in advance via a questionnaire about what language affirms them. For some, being validated verbally might be confidence-boosting, while for others they may dislike being given praise entirely.
  • Routines can be beneficial for Autistic people of all ages. Consider creating a social story for Autistic children so they know what to expect to reduce uncertainty. Here’s a customizable social story template I created for family photographers to edit and revise on Canva.
  • Whether a person is Autistic or not, it can be helpful for clients to know what to expect. While timelines make wedding days more manageable, family sessions tend to be a bit more organic. For some, this freeform nature might be anxiety-inducing, so consider ways to keep family members informed. Check in around any concerns or questions.
  • Don’t be afraid to refer out to other photographers who may be able to better serve Autistic clients if you find yourself overwhelmed. 

Determining details

A family session with a one-year-old in their backyard.

Nix the mini sessions

  • While 20-30 minute mini sessions can be more financially accessible, they can also be challenging due to the limited amount of time to build rapport and support clients’ needs. Allowing for time for slower transitions can be helpful. Families who feel pressed for time might feel more stressed, leading to possible dysregulation. Be transparent about how much time is included and options for if the session goes longer than planned.
  • Some photographers like myself might offer a sliding scale or reduced rate for repeat clients, which can make sessions more affordable, while giving them the time needed to be photographed more comfortably. 

Timing

  • Similarly, be mindful of timing. Having a strict schedule or booking a session right up against sunset might be challenging if someone has a half-hour meltdown and the sun is quickly setting. If you’re being photographed, don’t feel pressured into a morning or evening golden hour session if your child’s bed or meal time is quickly approaching. Supporting a family’s routine and schedule is an important factor in preventing potential dysregulation
  • Time of year can be another important consideration, especially where I live in the Philadelphia area, with cold winters and hot summers that can further escalate overstimulation or dysregulation.

Location

  • While we as photographers are great at brainstorming potential location ideas, involve everyone in the family by asking their opinions on where the session should be held. Choosing a familiar space, like having a session in the backyard or nearby park, can be beneficial when avoiding a potentially overwhelming environment with crowds.
  • Remind clients that they don’t have to worry about their homes being Pinterest-worthy. We’re used to working creatively to blur out any unwanted noise. Sometimes those little details are what makes a home feel authentic. Encourage clients to trust your vision, as long as they are comfortable within the environment.
  • When choosing a location, consider things like seasonal allergies, accessibility, nearby ADA accessible parking or transportation options, and whether or not restrooms are available on-site.

Communication styles

A family of four sits on a picnic blanket in their backyard during family photos in Ambler.

Be direct

  • Prompts can be tricky and feel forced, so prioritize clear communication whenever possible.
  • Figurative, flowery, or nonliteral language may be confusing, so be direct. For instance, I once photographed a family and said, “You’re crushing it!” Their Autistic grade schooler got concerned, asking what they were crushing. I apologized and explained how it was a figure of speech and that I meant it as a compliment. That being said, don’t be afraid to get playful by using a respectful sense of humor or even novelty, by bringing a beneficial change in direction.
  • Additionally, we can’t see gender, so don’t assume anyone’s identity by applying gendered labels to them. Labels like “buddy” or “superhero” can also be infantilizing to Autistic people of all ages. Be mindful of how you are speaking to and treating Autistic clients–avoid infantilizing them or making assumptions about their capabilities.

Augmentative and Alternative Communication

  • Some clients may use AAC (no tech, low tech, or high-tech) to help them communicate. One of my previous clients shares more about what AAC is, including how her son uses a speech tablet, in this interview on The Rare Advocates Podcast. Don’t shy away from photographing tablets or other devices if they are a regular part of the family’s way of communicating.

Encouraging autonomy

Siblings playing with trucks in their garden beds at home.

Involving everyone in the process

  • At the start of the session, do a temperature check to inquire how clients of all ages are feeling. Make sure a bathroom break is offered, if available. Many Autistic people can be affected by interoception, or lacking that internal sense for things such as hunger, thirst, or the need to use the bathroom. Explain a bit more in-person about what to expect and ask if anyone has any questions. Ensure clients that no matter what happens, you are there to create images for them unobtrusively—while embracing the imperfections—because honestly, that’s where the beauty is.
  • When possible, let clients—or in this case, children—lead the way, if that is accommodating for them. This can look like letting a child stim (self-stimulatory behavior) when done safely, by doing things like: hand-flapping, finger-flicking, jumping, or spinning in circles at a favorite park. Or encouraging siblings to share a favorite book on a picnic blanket in their backyard. Or picking fresh flowers from their home garden.
  • If children have an interest in directing by suggesting different backgrounds or activities, celebrate their curiosity by validating their ideas. A child might want to jump in the mud or get knee-deep in a stream, so check in with the grownups to plan around their ideas. For example, if they want to play in the water, consider wrapping the session with water play, so everyone is comfortable and not shivering during your time together.
  • If someone is expressing discomfort, be receptive to their feelings and support them. Avoid trying to photograph just one more pose or suggestion if someone is struggling in any way.

Nurturing possible traits

An older sibling yelling into their younger sibling's ear playfully at a park during a family photo session.

Infodumping + hyperfocus

  • Traits like infodumping or hyperfocus might show up when photographing Autistic family members. Encourage folks to share more about their SPINs (or special interests) by expressing curiosity and asking questions. For instance, a non-speaking child might ask for a favorite song on their speech tablet, so music could be a topic to explore. If someone is fascinated by the textures of rocks in a stream, set aside time to document their explorations. An example of this could be asking if they’d like to try to skip rocks together for some photos of experiences that come natural to them as a family.

PDA

  • Be mindful of how autonomy or demand might show up during a session, especially for clients who have PDA (Pervasive Drive for Autonomy or as some may interpret it, Pathological Demand Avoidance).
  • Sometimes it can feel like a Choose Your Own Adventure when trying to pre-calculate which actions might lead to dysregulation or a meltdown. This can be fluid and ever-changing, so check in with families about possible triggers—commonly words like “no,” “don’t” or “can’t”—and alternatives that could be used instead. For instance, “I’m afraid it’s not possible right now because it’s raining, but in the meantime would you like to have a snack or listen to music?”
  • Give clients opportunities to make choices and present them with options, rather than making them feel like everything is set in stone. Subtle shifts in language can be beneficial. For example, saying something like “I wonder whether…” or “Let’s see if…” when communicating pose suggestions could reduce the perception of demands.
  • Traditional parenting approaches like rewards (candy, ice cream, etc.) can create additional demand on top of the actual demand, only further magnifying the problem. Be cautious around mentioning rewards. Alternatively, distractions or turning things into a game can be a helpful way to reframe a demand. For instance, seeing who can make the silliest face while putting on coats or listing their favorite dinosaurs while finding a seat on a bench
  • Like I shared earlier, it can be incredibly uncomfortable to be asked to smile or “relax,” so be mindful of the demands you may be placing on clients against their consent. 

Meltdowns

  • I’ve had meltdowns and shutdowns without anyone around me realizing. Don’t assume that because a client appears calm that they are okay. Check in occasionally to make sure no one is feeling overwhelmed or under/overstimulated. Be patient if meltdowns appear seemingly out of nowhere.
  • Look for potential outward signs with subtleties of body language and facial expressions. This can vary greatly from individual, but may include: Someone’s body tensing; a client rocking their body; or someone becoming argumentative or refusing to participate in a conversation.
  • When possible, offer an alternative option if clients are unable to move forward on the session date due to dysregulation. Also being mindful of your own capacity as a business owner and human.
  • Inquiring about how to best support a family member through a meltdown in advance can be beneficial. Be available to co-regulate if it is accommodating to everyone involved. This could look like: Offering a hydration break, finding a favorite fidget, or cozying up with a blanket. Sometimes supporting us in silence is the most impactful way to offer help.

Recommended accommodations

A child sits on an outdoor rug on their porch with a comfort item in their hands.

Comfort items

  • If a child has a favorite comfort item, toy, or fidget, encourage caregivers or family members to allow them to bring them along for an added sense of safety and security. Asking about a meaningful toy can help create a connection between you both, while developing a basic level of trust.

Breaks

  • Allow for additional time between transitions, for instance if there is a location change. Even within spaces like an arboretum, it can be challenging to keep shifting to different areas. For some, it might be beneficial to be in movement and change backgrounds, while for others, they might want to get settled and hyperfocus at one location. It can vary depending on each individual’s needs—and sometimes there might be conflicting access needs within a family. At times, it may feel impossible to accommodate everyone, and that is okay.
  • Trust the intuition of children, along with their caregivers or parents, if they appear to need a break. If a child wants to recharge with a few minutes of their favorite show with headphones or take a break for any reason, find ways to refocus on others who are being photographed. Perhaps a parent could have some solo portraits or photos with their partner. Or a sibling could have some 1-on-1 time if they’re feeling up to it.
  • Preparing clients for transitions can be impactful. For example, saying something like “How would it feel to first take some photos sitting on a blanket near this pond? Afterwards, we could take some photos blowing bubbles together in the shade over here [gestures] if that sounds good to you.”

Flexibility

  • Remind clients that there’s no pressure to perform, while extending patience, grace, and flexibility
  • Build trust by listening and working to understand clients and their needs, rather than imposing your own agenda or preconceived notion of what a family session looks like. It’s impossible to apply a one-size-fits-all approach to Autistic clients because everyone’s needs vary tremendously.

Visual examples

  • If certain family members express curiosity but confusion around an idea, have a folder on your phone filled with examples to visually represent a suggestion. If you want everyone crowded together for a group photo, but it feels uncomfortable for someone, share an example and ask how they feel about trying to recreate the idea.

Sensory sensitivities

A toddler sits inside while watching a television show.

Lighting

  • Sensory sensitivities around lighting can escalate dysregulation, especially if a client is standing in the direct sun or having a direct flash pointed at them. Ask for consent around using flash or whether or not certain outdoor lighting scenarios are causing stress.
  • When possible, work with natural lighting. If outdoors, have clients backlit or standing in shaded spots. If a client needs to wear sunglasses at first or even throughout the session, work around these accommodations creatively. Perhaps a smiling family member can be seen in the reflection of their sunglasses
  • If being photographed in the sun, consider offering a countdown for clients who struggle to keep their eyes open. You’re not alone if you’re envisioning Tyra Banks sharing her 3-2-1 [open eyes] technique from America’s Next Top Model

Sounds

  • I’ve worked with photographers who have playlists for different types of sessions. While this may be accommodating and helpful for some clients, it could also be distracting or bothersome to others. Ask before playing music and if a client finds it accommodating, inquire if they have some favorite stim songs to play.
  • The shutter can be a new sound for some folks, so consider explaining the sound and what it means when working around kids.
  • If clients need to wear ear defenders or headphones, encourage them to do so. I am rarely seen without my wireless headphones and would love it if a photographer documented me in them. In a past branding portrait session, I’ve worn my Loop earplugs (not sponsored, I just love them). Not only because I wanted them, but because it felt more authentic to who I am.

Smells

  • Avoid wearing fragrances or suggesting locations that might be overwhelmingly fragrant if smell sensitivities are present. 

Clothing

  • Encourage family members to dress comfortably, even if it doesn’t align visually with a picture-perfect mood board. Recently, I bought our 5-year-old a button-up, rainbow striped shirt for our family’s beach photo session. He’s never worn a button-up in his entire life, so I obliged when he said he wanted to wear his Spiderman/Venom shirt instead. He was much happier wearing what he’s used to, without itchy tags or a collar on his neck.

Taste

  • Encourage snack breaks and hydration as needed throughout sessions. Remind clients during the onboarding process that they can bring their favorite snacks and drinks. This includes children who are chestfeeding and need frequent breaks. Planning around nursing sessions can feel impossible, so factor in time for those breaks to make everyone comfortable. 

Personal space

  • Be mindful of consent and don’t touch clients without asking and getting clear consent. Use clear language and ask how clients feel about ideas before further explaining instructions. Everyone’s boundaries are different and can be fluid and ever-changing. It’s important that non-speaking Autistic clients are also being included in conversations around consent.
  • Giving folks personal space for them to interact at their own pace can be accommodating for some. Using a longer lens (85mm and 135mm are some of my favorites) at the start of the session can provide some privacy while families warm up and rapport is built. 

The power of customizing garments

Photos of a queer family in their home in Philadelphia.

A conversation with Nik Ronca

Local neurodivergent and queer tailor Nik Ronca works with clients of all ages to reduce overstimulation in garments. As the owner of The Tailored Collective in Philadelphia, they pay attention to how clients move during their fittings. If they observe a certain type of fidgeting, for instance, they’ll offer hidden stim patches within pieces. Nik communicates with children in ways that are most accessible to their needs, reminding them that they’re still kids at the end of the day.

“I will ask them to close their eyes and think about the joy of whatever special day is coming up and ask them just to move how they think they’re going to move that day. That gets them silly and having fun.” Nik shared how they use that movement to finalize their fittings and ensure that kids can be kids, regardless of whether or not they’re wearing fancy pants.

Nik blends their formal education—with a degree in developmental psychology—and their experience as a parent to strengthen their values-driven work. As a parent to three children—with two who have different types of ADHD—Nik is experienced at approaching fittings with mindfulness, in order to support kids of all ages and abilities. 

“Working with kids replenishes my spoons,” they added.


Candid moments over allistic expectations

A young boy pulls a bucket up in a rope to his treehouse.

Dismantling ableism

  • Due to alexithymia, sometimes Autistic people don’t express their emotions in ways that are expected. For instance, we might be cognitively processing a lot of emotions, but not show it on our faces. Don’t force allistic (or non-Autistic) expectations onto clients. Avoid coercing someone to smile or making them comply with eye contact when they are uncomfortable.
  • Check in around whether or not family members feel comfortable making eye contact with each other or the lens. Adversely, if clients or kids are seeking the attention of eye contact, consider using your camera’s LCD screen to provide comfort via visible smiles and indirect reassurance.
  • While people predominantly gravitate toward wanting candid moments documented, some clients may prefer to share a rehearsed smile. Respect a client’s needs, even if they may differ from your typical expectations. Remember that Autistic people are not a monolith and validate their vulnerability along the way.
  • Sitting still in a studio setting or on a blanket in a field might not be comfortable for high-energy clients. Recommend that clients explore moments of movement together if you’re met with discomfort around seated suggestions. Embrace these moments of clients unmasking and shift your expectations to best meet their needs.

Post-session care

A family is photographed on a bench at Morris Arboretum.

Wrapping up

If you’re wrapping up a session, be mindful of saying a certain pose is the “last shot,” because it may be taken literally. It could be considered a loss of credibility if you end up changing your mind and wanting to test out another idea before heading home. 

If you haven’t already done so via questionnaire or another form of communication, check-in around consent (regardless of what your contract legally allows). Ask clients how they feel around posting photos to social media or on your website. Some clients may be comfortable sharing any photos from the gallery, while others may prefer that none be shared. Or some folks might choose to “favorite” or “hide” images from their gallery to communicate which are safe to include.


Final thoughts

A black and white photo of two neurodivergent kids playing and jumping in the mud in their backyard.

At the end of the day, it’s important that we embrace clients for who they are and give them the space to be themselves.

Too often Autistic people are led to believe that we are broken or that we have to try to be a chameleon to blend in. As photographers, it’s our job to support clients in the best way possible, especially when working with individuals with marginalized identities.

Due to accessibility needs always changing, by no means is this article on Autistic family photos meant to be a declarative statement. This piece will likely be updated as folks continue to reach out with feedback and additional advice.

Thanks to those who continue to dedicate themselves to being more inclusive in their professional and personal lives. And to those who are patient with us as we learn and evolve.

posted in: Education, Families
tagged with: , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *