Illuminating an Inner Autistic World


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Neuroscience is beginning to strip some of the mystery from autism, probing causes and possible cures, but it cannot illuminate the most intimate side of this baffling disease: the day-to-day experiences of a child with a brain that works in unusual ways. It can be difficult even for a parent to understand such a kid—the unique way he thinks, the distinct and unfamiliar world he lives in. These evocative photos, taken by photographer Timothy Archibald with his son Eli, attempt to bridge that gap. At age five, Eli was diagnosed as having Autism Spectrum Disorder. ASD is an umbrella term for a variety of developmental disabilities including autism and Asperger’s Syndrome, which involve language delays, social and communication difficulties, and unusual behaviors and interests.

To get inside Eli’s head, Archibald developed a photography project with his son. He calls it a photo-collaboration; rather than tell Eli what to do, the two experiment together before the camera. “Eli’s senses get overwhelmed at times and he'll need a filter to block things out,” Archibald says. “A lot of the images deal with these curious ‘states’ he’s in, and the things he does to deal with sensory overload.” Archibald’s new book, Echolilia, published by Echo Press, collects more than three years of these pictures. Animal scientist Temple Grandin, who has spoken extensively about her autism, says that she thinks visually rather than in words. “Personal relationships made absolutely no sense to me until I developed visual symbols of doors and windows,” she writes in her book Thinking in Pictures; after an insight, she began to conceive of establishing relationships with people in terms of opening a door, and visualized her own social isolation as being behind glass. Similarly, Archibald and his son return again and again to doors and windows as they compose their photographs. Through these portals, we too can cross the threshold and imagine what life is like for those who are tuned differently.

"Eli had found a large tube in my office used to ship prints. He had inserted his arm into it and was limping around the house with it. Then he suggested we make some images with it. We found a space where the light was smooth and there it was, a crutch, a third limb, a tube used to listen to the ground…it seemed like it could be so many things. I liked it as another sense, or an object that allowed a kid to tune into another wavelength."

The Listening Device, 2008

Screen Door, 2010 

"Eli and I began making images of each other behind the screen door of my office with a Hasselblad camera. He really liked the texture of the screen. He made a shot of me there and then he fell into this profile and it just felt right. It was as if he was using sense in a different manner, like he was listening for something with his whole body."

Nest, 2010 Eli and his brother found a nest in the backyard. We were taken by this electronic circuitry-like bit of nature. I had been reading books on Aspergers’s and autism at the time and the nest struck me like the organic web of wires in the brain."

Conversation, 2009

"I was always taken by the power that things have in my son’s life: objects take on a totemic importance. One of these items was this dog statue Eli bought from the dollar store. This was taken during the week or two that this object carried the power. He liked to look at it in his room, on his bed. I asked him if we could make an image when the light was nice. He got the dog and simply composed himself before the camera. He suggested it should look like the dog was speaking to him. I think it does."

Red Balloon, 2007

"This was an early image in the project. When Eli was younger the shoots were quicker, 3 minutes total. The balloon, and the act of sinking into it, was a good metaphor for the utter submersion he sometimes achieves. It had the emotion of being deeply and solidly in something, one of the states I learned about through him."

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