A fundamental responsibility of image makers is to exercise good judgement in representing experiences outside of their own, especially in cases where there is an uneven power dynamic. A photographer crossing the line of race, sexuality, gender identity, and class can be challenging at best and exploitative at worst. So what is to be done in a situation where the balance of power is inherently and uniquely slanted? A subject who may not even be able to bring the photographer into their experience because the way that their minds interpret the world are entirely different. How does one photograph neuroatypicality?
It is best to not mince words, autism is odd. This is not meant solely in the sense that autism is unusual, it is far more complex than this. In fact, it would be more accurate to say that autism is a developmental condition which influences the expression of complex thoughts and behaviours that society and the media reductively portray as being ‘odd’. In her book Autism: An Inside Out Approach, Donna Williams discusses how people with autism are represented as being aloof, avoidant and, of course, odd. She describes oddness as being “bizarre behaviour…. Portrayed as alien and uncomprehending” something she goes on to say is a “rehash of the circus freak concept, and its popularity may be based upon the attraction of freaks”. From this, oddness can be understood as something which extends beyond being perceived as strange into widely held social constructs which lead societal outliers, for example neuroatypicals, to become the subjects of spectacle or pity. Something which Williams has said results in “people with little ability to see how these people… could be fitted into mainstream society”.
This is exacerbated by problematic and erroneous information about autism being echoed by some of the most influential figures on global platforms. For example, unsubstantiated theories about vaccines causing autism being legitimised by high profile politicians, with even the President of the United Stated Donald Trump stating: “Healthy young child goes to doctor, gets pumped with massive shot of many vaccines, doesn’t feel good and changes, autism. Many such cases (sic)” Although this is an absurd conspiracy theory, when the highest power in the free world attempts to lend it validity, it contributes to a false belief that autism is some kind of disease and that its sufferers are unhealthy and freakish, further engendering malice and misunderstanding towards those on the spectrum.
The most demoralising thing of all is that people on the spectrum often lack a platform to dispel their damaging public perception. A possible method of addressing this is encouraging more direct engagement with autistic creators in a way which actively encourages the examination of their condition whilst drawing empathy and understanding from a neurotypical audience. Ideally, there would be autistic equivalents to what artists like Robert Mapplethorpe did for LGBT issues or Nan Goldin did for the subject of sex and gender expression. However, the inherent social and emotional difficulties that result from being an individual with autism, as well as the general disinterest in work from artists on the spectrum from the general public, do reduce the likelihood of subversive and self made voices emerging without outside influence.
Despite these challenges we should not be dissuaded from trying to elevate the voices of people on the spectrum. It is ultimately imperative if we value equality that all people that are pushed to the margins be brought to the centre. In this case I thoroughly believe that the most effective means of doing this is elevation through people with autism being given the help to self represent. Many neurotypical people do not realise just how much those on the spectrum have their lives transformed by an effective network of support, or how shameful the conditions are for many with autism that are not fortunate enough to have access to one.
Although there is still a long and tumultuous path ahead there are emerging examples of this collaborative approach coming to fruition. Over the summer I was fortunate enough to participate in Photofusion’s Autography project, a six-week project, which supported various people on the spectrum in the process of creation of an exhibition which explored and celebrated neuroatypicality. The work itself was a pleasure to create but what was most exciting was the ethos behind it. The project was spearheaded by a woman on the spectrum who ensured participants were supported without being overruled, something I saw far too much of when researching collaboration between neurotypical and neuroatypical artists. Although neurotypical artists are often well intentioned there is a significant difference between representing the outsider and allowing the outsider to represent themselves. As an artist on the spectrum I was initially dispirited as I saw little interest in an autistic practitioner attempting to represent his side of the neuroatypical experience. However, what I have experienced over the past year has demonstrated a flicker of something truly special developing gradually but surely. For now, all I can hope is that I get to be a part of adding fuel and watching it grow.