How do you photograph children with Autism?
Updated: Apr 20
Tips for Photographing a Child with Autism
As a newborn, family and child photographer, lecturer with nearly 20 years of experience of working with special educational needs (SEN) as an education practitioner and Education consultant in South Wales, I am now finding myself going through diagnosis with my eldest two-year-old son, and it really has been a whirlwind of learning. The biggest take home from my experience with Autism is, I understand inclusivity has no boundaries.
I recognise your needs are there every day, I see you, I really do, I understand your challenges, and I know how hard it can be to get the right fit and balance for your children. I’m posting this in April during Autism awareness month, to point out Autism does not have an off switch or if something you can simply grow out of, which is why I believe we must celebrate Autism everyday. Most of my clients will know that my ethos is driven by inclusivity, so my photography studio door in Porthcawl in Bridgend remains open to everyone ALL year round.
To celebrate Autism Awareness Month, with the hope this worldwide awareness drive results in understanding, acceptance, and life in general get better for autistic people everywhere, I want to share some tips I use when photographing children with Autism:
1. Pre-session consultation.
Every session, regardless of diagnosis is offered a pre-session consultation. This is done via email, messenger or over the phone with the parents. It’s an opportunity to get to know each other, whilst helping me to establish a child’s personality and likes/dislikes, and their capabilities and limitations, such as any physical impairments, sensory challenges or cognitive disabilities.
They say Knowledge is power, which I feel is true when it comes to planning a photoshoot for an Autistic child, it means I can tailor the session based on the information given. Parents thank me for going the extra mile for them, it shows how much I care and know what I’m doing.
2. Sensory issues considered.
The majority of children with autism have sensory sensitivities. So I often need to focus on if the environment will trigger Hearing, Smell, sight, taste, touch, vestibular (Movement) and Proprioception (Body Position).
I am very mindful of light, so I dim the lights and adjust the blinds if it is too bright. The studio is kept quiet, and I am happy to play background music or white noise if this helps to calm a child for the photoshoot. I try not to use strong scents on myself or in the studio. When parents are planning outfits for the photoshoots, I guide them to pick clothing which is comfortable and not restrict or aggravate the child.
Most of us like our personal space and I am even more mindful of this when children with autism visit me for a photoshoot.
3. Physical limitations.
Children with autism can have multiple diagnoses, so I like to ask if I need to be made aware of any mobility issues. I can then plan out the backdrops, props and poses accordingly.
4. Verbal vs. nonverbal.
I never assume there will be problems with communication when photographing a child with autism.
Being nonverbal doesn’t mean they will be quiet, or lack understanding language skills, so I always ask how it is best I communicate, do they use verbal instructions, an ipad, sign language, Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) which I can adopt or other form of communication. Often, a child might have some emerging language skills vocalizations, mimicry or even basic words.
I have met a lot of children with autism who are chatterboxes, and some that are slow at processing information, so I needed to repeat instructions to allow them to understand and give them time to answer. Keeping directions simple and direct is best with children who have slower processing speeds.
5. Location and safety.
Safety is paramount, and I recognise that a child with autism often doesn’t have a sense of boundaries or a sense of danger. Minimising opportunities, removing temptations and using distractions, helps to put parents at ease and makes the photoshoot as autism friendly as possible.
Before the session, I have a conversation with the parent about what the child likes and dislikes. I aim to remove uncomfortable social situations and allows them just to enjoy and play during the session.
6. Eliminate distractions.
Less is more, and the focus needs to be the child and you. I remove all distractions, to avoid over stimulating a child and causing them to feel anxious of the new surroundings. My studio storage is all enclosed, so everything is hidden, even the treats and stickers, this makes it easy to slowly bring things out one by one once ready.
Creating and finding an environment a child will be comfortable is always best.
7. Photography kit.
What I photography equipment I use is dictated by my clients needs, I have found Autistic children are not a fan of extreme lights like studio flash, they find is too overwhelming.
My photography session are kept simple, and I often ditch anything I feel will distract a child during the photoshoot. Throughout the session, the focus is the child
So, less is more!
8. Getting the important photos.
To help me prioritise the key photos, I ask every client, regardless of diagnosis, what is most important to them in the session to capture. Knowing expectations in advance helps me plan the session and I can highlight to parents how the photoshoot will play out.
Some children with autism have a short attention span, so too many setups and outfit changes will be too exhausting, so achieving the important photos first is critical to a successful session, and everything else is a bonus.
9. Greet the child.
Every child wants to feel special, so when I first meet a family for their photoshoot, I always greet their children by making eye contact and getting down to their level, this is regardless of age. Building these connections will help achieve getting the best photography outcome.
Greet the child. Always.
10. Read the body language.
Reading a child’s body language is something I am very good at, and it makes a huge difference to how successful a photoshoot is.
If a child shows signs of being ready, is not to be wasted, the camera is out, and I start photographing. Don’t miss the opportunity, working with an attentive child is a dream, but they can quickly become boisterous when their energy ramps up!
I photograph a lot of quiet children; they can be anxious of new situations and will need that little bit of extra time and reassurance. They need to feel comfortable to achieve the best photos, so we don’t rush. To give them a sense of security I often start off the session with a child’s favourite comforters or pose parent in photos with them. Building that trust is key to them having a positive experience.
Some photographers use a well-known technique of asking parents to step back or out of the room, having received years of Autism training I recognise this can cause a child anxiety, so I don’t employ this or recommend it.
11. Session pace.
Being a shy child myself, I can relate to how some children need extra reassurance to acclimate to new surroundings or a new situation. Being patient and taking things slowly for a child to feel comfortable will be far more rewarding than to rush them.
Then there is the opposite, a child who has a high energy level who isn’t great at boundaries. Being snappy and reactive before their energy level spirals too high works well, and whispering instructions helps slow the session down. I use movement and certain responsive noises to grab attention to capture those beautiful moments.
12. Meet the child where they are.
A child with Autism can find certain situations overwhelming, new and unfamiliar ones being the most challenging. I am always prepared to make adjustments, be is having alternative plans to try out or being spontaneous and follow their lead with what feels comfortable for them.
Inclusion is key and I find having them involved in the process gets me the best results.
As a photographer it is second nature for me to want to engage with who I am photographing. It can be a little more challenging to engage with a child with Autism, so I work a little harder to enter into their world, instead of them having to enter into mine.
I love achieving eye contact with my subjects, and I know this can be difficult for some children with autism. At the start of the session I spend some time talking and playing with them, this allows me to observe how they behave, so there is never any demands put on a child, only encouragement through fun distractions.
14. Parent involvement.
Sometimes a child doesn’t want to engage with me, and that’s okay, I can work with this, they prefer to interact with someone more familiar, which is understandable. I guide Mum and Dad to help me out, and it can be very different from child to child. Children love reassurance, and often light up around their parents, so their involvement is key to help me achieve those natural photos. I get mum and dad to standing directly behind me so we can attract attention towards the camera and involve them in the photos to play a game or hug or tickle with their child.
And we can get creative with parent, and use them as a prop, so the focus is all about the child. My favourite is walking away hand holding and the child looking back at the camera.
15. Hold still!
Sitting still can be a challenge for some children, they easily get distracted and can’t help exploring they’re new surroundings. I like to use chairs, stools, floor rugs, or even a sticker on the floor to anchor a child with autism to the place I want to photograph them. Having beautiful vintage and handmade props also helps keep children in place, whist I use distraction methods to get those beautiful eye contact shoots. Another good position can be having them lay on their stomach and look up at me.
I have been known to sing, make silly noises and act out gestures to make a child listen and look in the direction of the camera. Parents are also encouraged to stand behind me and play peek a boo. Using a combination of methods, really does help a child remain in one spot for a few moments.
16. Quick on the trigger.
Smiles and eye contact can be fast and fleeting with children with autism, so I am quick on the trigger! I do a quick test shoot, to make sure my settings are right and don’t fuss around with them too much, because I don’t want to risk sacrificing missing the perfect moment.
Instead of guiding a child to move, it will be me doing the moving around. And I always have a new memory card and back up ready because I tend to overshoot when I’m photographing a child with autism.
17. Recognising when a child has had enough.
When it’s time to call it a day, recognising the signs comes from experience. Even if you never got started, it’s respecting a child wishes if they are not enjoying themselves. A child with Autism will often tell you they have had enough and it is best to try again another time. The camera is always on standby, in the event there is a change of heart once they feel the pressure is off and start to relax. It’s usually when a child knows the session is over is when the best photos happen.
Before there is any mention of rewards, I ask parents first and out of earshot of the child. Many children with autism can be picky eaters or have dietary needs, which is another reason I never blurt anything out to the parents in front of children.
Some autism children dislike being touched, so I never demand hugs and I do my best to be respectful of these comfort zones. I do like to offer a high-five for a job well done and I never take offense if it’s not reciprocated.
19. Thank you.
Same reason as why we greet a child on arrival, I want them to recognise I are grateful for contributing so well during the photoshoot. It can be a huge accomplishment for a child with Autism to cooperate in unfamiliar surroundings and around new people, and I want every child to leave feeling good about themselves, and hopefully look forward to the next time we get to do photos!
If you would like to know about my all year round Autism friendly photoshoot sessions and discuss your additional requirements, then please do not hesitate to get in contact with me.