Recognizing (And Respecting) The First Signs Of Independence

I have always been the resident photographer of our little family; I am forever posing my family members, constructing the backdrop and poking my lens into people’s faces.

For six years, my nephew was the only grandchild in our family, so you can only imagine how often I had my camera in his face.

But one thing I’ve noticed about kids on the autism spectrum, is that a lot of them hate having their picture taken.

As a Very Enthusiastic Auntie and Over-Zealous Therapist, I was forever taking pictures of my nephew trying to “help him remember all the fun things we did.”

But guess what:

That was my own agenda.

In my desperation to capture a “happy memory”, I was losing my ability to read his body language and truly empathize.

A few years ago, I attended a H.A.N.D.L.E (Holistic Approach To Neuro-development and Learning Efficiency) workshop and started to see physiology as communication. During the two-day course, the practitioner showed us a picture of a young boy with autism wincing as he posed for a family photo.  His jaw was out of alignment and clenched; his eyes squinted. His mom was hugging him in the photo and his shoulders were collapsed as if holding his breath. I had never met the boy in the picture, but knew his body language very well. This was the very same physiological state my nephew was in photo after photo in our family albums.

Fast-forward a few months later to a holiday celebration at school.  In addition to being my nephew’s aide, I was also the class photographer. I would take photos of he and his friends, and make albums for him, sometimes with cute little quotations I thought he’d like. Again: my own agenda.

We were at the height of festivities and my nephew had a lot to contend with: change in the daily routine, loud music, dancing, kids and teachers excited about their costumes; the school was swept up in the intensity of the holidays.

We were doing RDI at the time and a crucial part of the approach was identifying a role for the child within any given framework. With this idea at the front of my mind, I asked my nephew if he wanted to use my camera and photograph the holiday festivities.

His body language changed completely. At first he had his own dialogue going and was snapping pictures to match the self-talk.

And then one of his classmates said:

“Hey Leo! Take a picture of me!”

He took one, and then another… soon other kids began to join in.

“Am I a photographer?” He asked.

I nodded yes and faded away.

The kids started a non-verbal dance of posing and laughing. Leo got into it and was ordering everyone around like a director (his natural tendency is to lead).  Then he switched it up, handed the camera over to a friend, and got into the frame.

After 6 years of holiday celebrations at his school; it was the best one ever – hands down.  He had a role he felt competent with and he was having fun.

Later that night, when I uploaded the photos to my computer, I was completely startled by the image I saw in front of me:

This was my nephew smiling his real smile; eyes lit up with confidence. His body was calm and confident, with a steady stream of air flowing through it.

I sent the photos to my sister. She saw the difference too. It was as if this were the first time we were able to capture the real Leo on film. This has become the standard by which I log all of our family photos; anything short of it is either deleted, or never taken in the first place.

This was a few years ago now, but became the framework we implemented across everything in his life – sitting back and being open to the first signs of the need for independence – stopping everything and seeing where that moment can go.

It is on top of these incredible moments, that we can all build the good stuff – confidence, self-esteem, and the brass ring: true and ever-lasting friendship.


Sara Winter is a classroom aide to kids with autism, and an advocate for underestimated kids. She’s the founder of SquagTM   and lives with her husband and two young sons in Toronto.