Photographing Autism: Q&A with Spectrum Inspired Co-Founder

Written by Lauren Loftus Category: Visual Arts Issue: April 2017
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Spectrum Inspired is offering free photo sessions for families affected by autism this weekend.

We all have memories of taking family photos. I wouldn’t call them fond, necessarily. For example, I remember having to put on church clothes, including truly heinous white tights and a big ol’ bow, and pose with my brother on totally inconceivable objects at a musty Olan Mills portrait studio. (In what world would two small children be lounging on Lilliputian-style Greek columns in front of draped gray sheets?) But they’re memories all the same – snapshots into a time when we were little and pliable and smiled big at the promise of candy. It’s now 25-odd years later and my mom still posts those photos for #TBTs on Instagram.

For families affected by Autism Spectrum Disorder, it can be hard to capture such memories on camera. Photographing a child with autism can be difficult for a number of reasons, such as posing in one position for too long can be arduous while bright lights and flashes can be disturbing if they have sensory issues. Enter Spectrum Inspired, an Arizona-founded collaboration of photographers who organize lifestyle photo sessions to capture kids with autism in a natural, stress-free setting. 

Photo courtesy AWE Collective.

This Saturday, April 22, more than 20 local lifestyle photographers are donating their time for a free Phoenix family photo session at the Venue at the Grove in South Phoenix to celebrate National Autism Awareness Month. The photogs are offering 20-minute mini sessions from 8:30-11 a.m. Families are asked to reserve a spot online at the link below.

Pop-Up Pic Op
Venue at the Grove
7010 S. 27th Ave., Phoenix

PHOENIX caught up with Melissa Isaksson, co-founder and foundation director of Spectrum Inspired, to talk about the Pop-Up Pic Op and working with families living with autism.*

Describe briefly what Spectrum Inspired is all about.
Spectrum Inspired is a global community that connects, supports and uplifts individuals and families touched by Autism Spectrum Disorders. In order to educate the general public, our team uses lifestyle photography to document a diverse group of children on the spectrum and their families across the globe in effort to normalize and destigmatize ASD. It is our mission to give families a platform to voice their struggles, celebrate their victories and share their story; all the while, removing the stigma and stereotypes of what is thought to be representative of autism and show the world just how broad and beautiful the spectrum is. We do this through sharing the stories and images we capture and share them on our blog and in our quarterly magazine, Spectrum Inspired Magazine.

How many families are you expecting at the pop-up?
We are expecting hundreds of people and the response has been overwhelming in the best way. One in 68 children in the United States are diagnosed with autism and that number is not slowing down anytime soon. Phoenix has been called one of the "Most Autism Friendly City in the World" [in a PBS Newshour segment on the Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center]. We want to be part of spreading awareness in the most authentic way possible and be a voice for these individuals and families to share their stories with the world.

What makes a successful photo shoot different for kids with autism vs. those without?
Individuals with autism often struggle to smile and pose for the camera in the traditional sense that most photographers expect. When they are asked to do this it is often uncomfortable or the result is not desirable. Lifestyle photography is the perfect resolution to this struggle as it captures the subjects in real, unposed, raw moments. Our favorite imagery is that which captures the true essence of a child. In these moments we see the beauty and broadness of Autism Spectrum Disorders. These images tell their story in a sense.

The Venue at the Grove is a picturesque venue and it happens to have beautiful outdoor space for us to accommodate this kind of traffic. It is not necessary or preferred to shoot kiddos outdoors. We prefer to shoot families in settings that meet their specific needs and in which they are most comfortable.

Have you met families who have been turned away from photo studios because of issues related to autism?
We have not met families who have been turned away per se. However, we have spoken to and met with many families who have not even considered booking a photography session because they are so nervous about how their child on the spectrum will behave during the shoot. We have also had a few families mention how horrible their experience was when they did attempt to get family photos done because their child was not able to “sit still” or “pose” for the camera and the photographer was ill prepared to deal with a child on the spectrum. So, we wanted to change that and take a new approach to their photography sessions. Rather than making the children stare at our camera and “cheese,” we chose to capture them in their own world. We also educate our photographers and provide elaborate questionnaires to the families to help our photographers prepare for what kind of obstacles they may face with each specific child they photograph. What’s more, the photographers learn about the children and their likes and dislikes and are then able to enter their world and connect with the child to get beautiful, meaningful pieces of art for these families.

Another thing to note is that families with children on the spectrum spend [an estimated] $60,000 a year on therapies and services necessary to support their child with ASD. Our documentary sessions are free because we understand the financial impact a diagnosis like autism has on a family.

Who are some of the photographers that are participating, and where can we see some of their work?
We will be having over 20 insanely talented photographers from all over the Valley who have been hand selected by us participating in this event. You can check out the amazing work of two of Spectrum Inspired co-founders here: Coleen Hodges,, and Sarah Driscoll,

*Answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.