Not Autistic — a photo essay

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About a year ago I was busy obsessing about my entry to the Aaron Siskind Foundation Individual Photographer’s Fellowship Grant.

Undaunted by the big city “East Coast” air to this thing, I set about selecting 10 photos from literally hundreds I’d taken of my son Harrison in hopes of not only doing something with my photography, but also helping to raise the awareness around – and, moreover, dispel stereotypes about – autistic people, especially kids. Oh, and there was a $15,000 award for the 10 entries chosen by the team of distinguished judges.

It was a ton of work putting together and editing the photos, plus I had to write an artist statement for the project, and a bio, then plug the entire thing into an online presentation app.

Then came the really hard part, waiting.

Weeks turned into months. Finally, last fall I received notice that my submission had not been chosen from among thousands of entries.

I’d sort of expected this would be the case. But then was the question of what to do with this package. I’ve been agonizing over what to do with it for months.

Following several weeks of hectic schedules with work, coaching, parenting, and life challenges that included processing the passing of my own mom, and the travels to and from Cheyenne, Wyoming, to say goodbye, I realized I could just publish it myself.

My mother was the original “single mom” before the term was even coined. She courageously dragged my sister and myself out of an abusive home at an early age and worked two jobs to support us while always striving to provide a somewhat normal childhood. For some time we did not have transportation and I remember her saving $600 to buy a red Plymouth Valiant convertible from a friend. Her tenacity was something to be admired.

One of my fondest memories – one of thousands – was her taking my sister and me out for burgers and milkshakes one summer evening in Las Vegas, where we lived for two years, then cruising the Strip with the top down on the Valiant as the neon lights of the Dunes, Tropicana, Caesar’s Palace, Circus Circus and others lit up the scorching evening sky. I was 12, and she had recently remarried my stepdad Dave. Our family travels took us from Southern Virginia, to Reno, Las Vegas, Northern Virginia and Craig, Colorado.

Along the way, she had a career in civil service with the Bureau of Land Management, Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Forest Service, Federal Housing, the Internal Revenue Service, Federal Highways, and she retired from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Cheyenne.

She was an amazing and courageous woman, even in her final days. On one of my trips to Cheyenne I sat with her in the living room as the sun set, and then turned on a lamp so that I could see her better. In that blended light of the waning sunset and glowing lamp, she appeared as I would want to remember her; her age and cancer melting away to that same fun-loving mom in the convertible long ago. The entire experience has left me with the usual questions, not the least of which is: “What am I doing here?”

So in honor of my mom, I am offering up my Aaron Siskind submission “Not Autistic” to my faithful readers. I hope you enjoy it.

Artist Statement – Not Autistic

Soon after my son Harrison was diagnosed with autism, I rediscovered my camera as a means of therapy. What I quickly learned is that through the eye of a lens, he is “not autistic.” The images were of a beautiful soul cast in a world that he himself describes as “strange.” This led me to rethink society’s enforced stereotypes and casting, and become aware of the rich lives those with various neurodiversity issues could lead if they were not limited by others’ conventions.

I believe my photos paint a picture of Harrison’s improbable, some would say impossible, life in the Colorado mountains. He runs on the school track and cross-country teams, models for artist workshops, fly-fishes and rides a mountain bike and a burro with equal skill. Never mind his capacity for tantrums, random behaviors and even violent outbursts. In these pictures he’s just another kid, not some label or medical diagnosis.

Together, these stills create a tapestry of inspiration, hope and the unexpected that can’t be captured in video or even in fleeting real life. It’s my wish that these images change hearts and help create awareness among parents, educators and caregivers that allows a better understanding of the world of neurodiversity.

I’m often asked what Harrison’s future holds. The truth is, I don’t know. All I can offer is what is reflected in these pictures. It is my mission to continue documenting Harrison’s life though photos and words about this journey into the unknown.

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