Project Echolalia: A father photographs the world of his autistic son

As someone with a background in Psychology, I had the privilege of completing a summer internship at the Outpatient Psychiatric Centre for Children and Young People at a local hospital during my undergraduate degree and those 3 months were the greatest experience I gained. I worked with children and young people affected with Autism Spectrum Condition (also known as ASC) and the interactions I had with these children and young people just blew my mind. I still have a soft spot for people with ASC because of their innocent views of the world and their lack of social interaction skills make them quite endearing to me.

As the name suggests, ASC isn’t just one condition that defines everyone – it’s a broad spectrum which encompasses people with very mild symptoms to avoiding eye contact, strong needs for routine and no change and difficulty grasping abstract concepts (telling someone with ASC to ‘put your foot in your mouth’ will often result in that person doing exactly that) or other people’s perspectives, to name a few. It’s a condition that’s often misunderstood because like with a lot of individuals who may have a disability, this isn’t manifested physically so it’s hard to know whether a person has one or not. Especially with those with ASC, the general public often see them as anti-social or awkward, or at times rude for making honest comments they don’t realise is not appropriate in a social situation. It’s a condition that requires an open heart, patience and understanding from the general public and from people a person with ASC interacts with, but I find the relationship you form with them can also be very rewarding when they come to trust you and build a rapport with you. Then you also get the other end of the spectrum where a minority of people with ASC, like Derek Paravicini, aren’t given their due recognition for their level of intelligence and skill.

Documentary on Derek Paravacini

I thought I had learned almost everything I needed to know about ASC, having completed my internship then later working briefly in a residential social care setting with adults with autism and other learning disabilities. Little did I know that some people with ASC have a way of looking at the world differently and pays attention to details that I would normally miss. I was teaching English to Chinese children and young people when one day I thought I recognised one of my students as possibly having ASC. On my last day teaching this bright young boy who aimed to please by learning what I taught him with enthusiasm and vigor, knowing how much the boys like trains and buses, I bought him a small Thomas the Tank Engine stationery set. He was looking intently at the pencil case and kept stroking Thomas’ face. When I asked him if he liked it, he immediately replied ‘No’. Worried that it wasn’t what he liked I asked him why and he said: ‘Because Thomas is sad and I don’t like it when Thomas is sad’. When I asked him what we should do about it, he immediately noted my concern that he didn’t like what he was given and said ‘No no sorry, I do like it I really like it, thank you!’

When I saw the film The Black Balloon with Gemma Ward, Toni Collette, Luke Ford and Rhys Wakefield, I wasn’t sure how I felt about the film.

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The Black Balloon (2008) film poster. Source: The BlackBoxBlue blog

The portrayal of Thomas’ everyday life, going hom to see his brother, Charlie, who has autism and how he fits in at school, was insight into how having a family member with ASC could possibly be like. My reservations were: is it right to use an actor who doesn’t have the condition to portray someone with Autism? On the other hand, is it right to use an actor with ASC just for his/her condition for the sake of a film? I still haven’t made up my mind about that yet.

Trailer for The Black Balloon

I thought the world had swept the lack of awareness and knowledge under the rug, except for those who are keen on understanding more about the condition, providing support and advice to people who care for someone with ASC or are researching into Fragile X Syndrome, one of the known genetic causes for learning disabilities, including ASC. Imagine my surprise when I came across this article with poignant photographs of the relationship between a father and his son who has autism.

I came across the article on SNAP! where a father started taking photographs to show his relationship with his son and to show the general public what it’s like for the father to take care of his son, and what it’s like for his son to live with ASC. This project was named Project Echolalia (after some people with autism’s unconscious action of repeating what they hear being said).

“According to Timothy, his project Echolilia helped him understand the situation, his role as father, but most importantly, to accept his own son’s differences. Those habits that first drove him nuts completely changed through his photos. In Echolilia, father and son create their own visual language, thanks to which they can communicate with each other even when there are no words they both can understand. In fact, Elijah receives positive attention for his rituals, can share something with his dad, and has even started to take his own photos.” Via

Source: SNAP!

All the photos show a deeper emotion that can sometimes be hard to document in photo. A lot of people (myself included) like dabbling into photography as an interest, but how do you take striking photos that project emotion from a piece of photo paper? With my background experience and knowledge of ASC, I think what struck me the most about the photos is the one of Elijah curled up in a plastic storage box (it can often be isolating for people with ASC when people don’t understand the condition and children are sometimes made fun of or bullied in school, or even frowned upon in public) as it visually explains how people with ASC are sometimes in their own world of thoughts and can sometimes be difficult for others to be part of it.

The other image that sticks with me is that of Elijah holding the fish bowl. In one sense, people with autism find it difficult to see outside of what they know and like the image of the plastic storage box,
it can also be somewhat isolating for them being in their own world. It’s also significant in the sense that people with ASC receive a lot of stimulation from their senses and this can sometimes be overwhelming to handle. The image can be interpreted in different ways, one of which to me is that Elijah just wants some quiet from all the stimulation and negativity from people who don’t understand what it’s like for people with ASC.

Ownership and copyright of photos are accredited to Timothy and Elijah Archibald. Photos were presented on SNAP!

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Source: SNAP!

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Source: SNAP!

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Source: SNAP!

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Source: SNAP!

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Source: SNAP!

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Source: SNAP!

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us
Source: SNAP!

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Source: SNAP!

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Source: SNAP!

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us
Source: SNAP!

For more information about ASC, you can have a look at The National Autistic Society

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