Use these simple tips to learn how you can accurately and respectfully represent life with autism spectrum disorder in your images.
I didn’t really consider the importance of representing autism accurately in images until I became a photographer, and started capturing images of my sister- who happens to be on the spectrum.
Our family knew that she was autistic from a very young age. Some of the early signs of being on the spectrum include being nonverbal and a limited interest in social activity. These were just a few of the characteristics that my sister began to exhibit. I grew up trying to understand and learn about what it meant to be her version of autistic.
It made me realize how autism, as a developmental disorder, is so diverse. It produces an array of visible and non-visible behavioral and developmental differences that manifest at different times. This is what makes accurately representing the autism spectrum in images so challenging. Everyone sits on the spectrum at a different place and exhibits a variety of developmental and social differences.
April is World Autism Awareness month, which is the perfect time to bring attention to the autism spectrum. We need to consider how we can better represent autism in the images, videos, and illustrations we create.
Finding images that represent autism spectrum disorder
One issue that we run into at Shutterstock is finding images that could represent autism for our customers to use. Often, we pull these images from other areas by searching keywords like “kids in speech therapy” or “developmental disorder.” But we should be able to find images that represent the full spectrum simply by searching for “autism.”
The point is, autism can be represented in a wide variety of social and non-social circumstances and there is no box that defines the type of imagery that can represent the autism spectrum. This article explores how you can start creating and sharing representative images of autism spectrum disorder.
What is autism spectrum disorder?
Autism Speaks defines autism spectrum disorder, or autism, as a range of conditions characterized by challenges with repetitive behaviors, social skills, speech and nonverbal communication, as well as unique strengths and differences. There are many types of autism. And differences in genetic and environmental circumstances can cause wide variations in autistic experiences.
In 2020, the CDC determined that 1 in 54 children are diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. Autism is widespread around the globe, which is why creating representative images is more important than ever.
What are the common misconceptions of representing the autism spectrum in images?
In images, representing autism can be a challenge. As autism spectrum disorders work in a variety of different ways, the disorder itself is rarely physically visible.
When I began photographing my sister, it was her laughter that caught my attention. There was magnificent happiness in a simple moment, something I take for granted far too often. In other moments, it’s watching her interact with her speech therapist, listening intently when she’s ready to learn, and knowing when she’s had enough and chooses to walk away.
Facts to Consider: Autism Spectrum Disorder
Here are a few statistics that are important to remember when creating accurate imagery that represents the autism spectrum, summarized from Autism Speaks.
- Autism affects all ethnic and socioeconomic groups: Diversity and representation of all ethnic and socioeconomic groups with autism is important.
- Vaccines do not cause autism: This is a common misconception that has been medically refuted with extensive scientific research. It’s important not to depict this in images created to represent autism.
- Applied behavior analysis (ABA) and therapy are common: These are great images to represent the autism spectrum. Often, people diagnosed with autism will participate in speech, occupational, and behavioral therapies to support healthy development.
- Both adults and children can have autism: Autism is not solely diagnosed amongst children and teens. There’s never been more information about autism than today. Adults are continuing to be diagnosed who may never have identified as autistic before or been misdiagnosed with other developmental disorders.
Accurate representation of the autism spectrum in images
When creating representative images of the autism spectrum disorder in images, it’s important to represent images of youth in development as well as adults.
My sister had an incredible experience going through therapy and school. Therapy helped her gain social skills, communicate socially, and make her own decisions as an independent thinker. Celebrate each person’s individuality on the spectrum. That means showcasing both the process of learning and development through therapy and school, as well as the skills and traits of people as individuals.
Ideas for representing autism spectrum disorder in images
- Speech therapy: An estimated one-third of autistic people are nonverbal. Depict images of people of all ages using speech cards, working with therapists, and exchanging nonverbal communication with family and friends.
- Wandering: It’s estimated that nearly 50 percent of people with autism wander or bolt from situations depending on individual triggers. When representing this in images, it’s important not to create images that represent someone who is fearful or lonely. Instead, create images that show independence, such as reading alone or playing in nature.
- Use of technology: Technology assists people on the autism spectrum disorder in a wide variety of circumstances. It can be as simple as listening to something with headphones in a social situation as an escape from being uncomfortable, watching television, or playing games on handheld devices.
- Social anxiety: Both adults and children on the autism spectrum disorder may experience social anxiety. Some therapies and schools work to bring people on the spectrum together, learning social skills as a collective. This learning should be represented in images.
Representing autism spectrum disorder in images of adults
We usually see images of kids and teens depicted in situations that are meant to showcase autism spectrum disorder. At Shutterstock, we rarely receive images depicting adults with autism spectrum disorder. Over the next decade, hundreds of thousands of teens will enter adulthood. This means that they will age out of school-based autism services. Depending on where those adults are in the world, they may or may not have access to health care.
When creating images of adults with autism spectrum disorder, consider the following ideas for accurate representation.
Jobs that encourage independence
Research shows that jobs that allow independence help reduce autism disorder symptoms, including social anxiety. They also help support transition into adulthood. A job can be anything that encourages independence. That includes jobs in creative fields such as photography or graphic design, all the way to computer programming or working as a cashier.
The point is, autism is a spectrum and can’t fit into a box. Represent all job possibilities in images that allow for independent consideration.
Different living and social situations
Depending on if adults are high functioning on the spectrum or require support from a caregiver, people will have a wide range of living situations throughout adulthood. It’s important to depict this variety in imagery, from people who live independently, to those who live at home with a caregiver including hired assistance, family, or spouse.
Some individuals on the autism spectrum will choose to partake in social situations, and others will not. Represent a variety of social circumstances and living situations in images representing the spectrum.
My sister has brought the biggest light to my life. Capturing images of her is one of my favorite things to do, as her joy shines through in every image I take. She’s patient with my ideas and curious about what they look like. She’ll dance, she’ll stand still, and she thinks for herself.
I want creatives around the world to create more accurate images representative of people on the spectrum. This blog post is to encourage creatives to submit content to stock so companies can depict autism accurately in marketing and communication efforts. April may be Autism Awareness Month, but autism is an everyday situation for many people around the globe. Create images to spread awareness and change the perception.
Cover image by Newman Studio.
Find more inspiration in these articles:
- Photographing Self-Isolation: Words at the Window with Stephen Lovekin
- Why We Need to Talk About Black Representation in Photography
- Breaking Gender Stereotypes Through Innovative Illustration
- #EqualForEqual: What International Women’s Day Means to Photographers
- Creating Images that Accurately Represent Disabilities
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