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.