Tera Girardin is a Twin Cities- based portrait photographer and author of Faces of Autism: inspiration. admiration. celebration., a beautiful and meaningful coffee-table book featuring photos of children on the spectrum. Faces of Autism was published in April of 2017 and asks the reader to move beyond autism awareness. Girardin asks us to embrace autism admiration, which she describes as taking a sincere interest in and learning about and from autistic children.
Read on and learn more about the author and her inspirations for this must-have book for every autism family in this insightful Q&A:
Paste: What inspired Faces of Autism?
Tera Girardin: I’m a mom to three teen boys. My youngest son, Alex, was diagnosed with autism when he was three. When he began treatment at an intensive early intervention program, I was inspired by him and all the other children in the center. As a photographer, I felt compelled to photograph them. I didn’t know the first thing about publishing a book! But I knew it had to be done. So I began with what I knew, photographing children, and took it a step at a time.
Paste: Your tone in Faces of Autism is one of kindness, compassion, understanding and experience. I imagine those are characteristics that serve you well as a photographer and why you connect with your subjects, such as the nonverbal girl that asked you to be in the picture with her. Tell me about that session.
TG: The session with Liz … she’s just such a loving little girl to begin with! And she never forgets a person either and we had met once before. So it didn’t take long to build a connection with her because she’s so engaging—despite being nonverbal. I was first thinking she was done with photos because she kept moving from the spot I placed her. But she kept dragging me back with her and I kept backing up to take her photo! Back and forth we went and it wasn’t working very well! It was amusing when I finally realized she just wanted to include me in her photos. So we took a few selfies and I nearly was knocked over by her tight hugs!
Paste: In Faces of Autism, you ask readers to go beyond practicing autism awareness in order to embrace autism admiration. As a fellow mom to a child on the spectrum. I love this concept. Can you please explain for Paste readers what you mean by “autism admiration”?
TG: We’ve done a great job in recent years raising autism awareness and we are moving towards acceptance, which is a very good thing. However, sometimes acceptance can imply tolerance. Nobody wants to be merely tolerated. What if we value autism as a super power? That child that memorizes license plates has a remarkable skill. The one with perfect pitch—that’s a gift! Each child with autism has gifts to share in a wide range of abilities, from genius-level math skills to extreme compassion and creativity. What if we admire them for that instead of seeing autism as something that only hinders them? That’s what autism admiration is all about.
Paste: Many times in the book, you remind the reader that in order to truly understand children on the spectrum, it is important for them to remove their own expectations and instead to meet autistic children “where they are.” Can you explain what you mean and why it is so important?
TG: It’s important to me to structure all my portrait sessions to allow for the authentic spirit of the person to shine through. With autism, it takes a few special considerations. Verbal communication challenges, sensory issues, attention span, safety concerns and physical limitations are all discussed prior to a session so I can make my subject feel comfortable and happy. This might mean doing a session quickly due to short attention spans or it might mean taking our time to allow a child to acclimate to a new situation. So instead of forcing eye contact or a smile, I meet a child where they are and allow them to be exactly who they are. And appreciate who they are.
Paste: What do you say to any detractors who might criticize Faces of Autism as being too “parent centered”? I have had my autism focused work attacked for speaking on behalf of the autism community instead of letting autistic individuals speak for themselves. I say I’m writing for the parents who hesitate to take that last step to secure the autism evaluation and for the parents of the newly diagnosed. What do you say?
TG: As a parent and a photographer, I have the unique vantage point of observing autism through my lens, experience, and perspective. This book is just that, what I see, celebrate and observe. So it was never meant to be a book that was speaking for anyone else. Also, these are children so given their age and abilities some were not self-aware enough or didn’t have the communication skills to discuss what autism is like for them. In the couple of cases they did, it was certainly a part of our conversations and interaction during a session. You can see some of this in the book’s video trailer where Rowan and Alex are interviewed.
Girardin’s book, Faces of Autism, is available on her website and on Amazon. Every book ordered from her site is signed! Click here to learn more about Girardin and her work.
Main and Lead photo courtesy of Tera Girardin
Pauline Campos is an artist, Aspie-Mom, and author of “Be Your Own F*cking Sunshine: An Inspirational Journal for People Who Like to Swear.” ADHD is her superpower. Pauline Lives in Minnesota, but will always be from Detroit. Find her on her website and on Twitter.