On our recent excursion for exercise, there was much eye rolling from the three younger children when Joe requisitioned Mark’s work phone yet again so he could use the camera. (Joe accidentally dropped his camera in the sea and despite a quick recovery, it has never worked again.) It set us all reminiscing about the period in Joe’s life, around the age of five, when he recorded every single sunset. He would become agitated towards the end of the day, want everyone in the family to come and look at the sunset, including Peta who at the age of two or three had very little motivation for that kind of thing. I started to dread the evenings because Joe would become very distressed if we didn’t drop everything and come and watch with him. But we found that if we gave him a camera to take a photograph of the sun set, the stress left the situation. We could all just come for a quick look and then carry on with the things we had to get on with. It meant we could go back to watching and enjoying a really good sunset periodically, rather dealing with a rigid, stressful half hour every night for much of the year.
The tactic with the camera became invaluable when Joe moved on to vapour trails. He needed to know where every plane was headed and wanted everyone to see each vapour trail. Now, when I look back, I think how much easier life would have been if plane-tracker apps had been around, but at the time, I was just grateful we no longer lived under the Heathrow flight path. Fortunately, we had just invested in our first digital camera because we amassed hundreds of photographs of white lines on varying shades of blue and grey.
Photographs have been really useful to Joe over the years, and he still enjoys taking them. But they have been invaluable to me too because they have helped me view the world through Joe’s eyes. I first became aware of how differently Joe and I experienced our environment when, at the age of four, I took Joe to look round his new school. It was the holidays and no-one else was about. I hoped that by taking photographs then putting them into an album, he would become familiar with his new environment and this would make his move into school easier. I took photographs myself, then gave him the camera to take pictures of things that he found interesting. When we took the camera home and printed the photographs, the difference was stark. There was always going to be a difference, of course, because I was looking from an adult perspective and he looked from a child’s but while I had photographed classrooms, the library, the playground and the hall, Joe’s photographs were a study in symmetry and pattern – fences, grids, paving-slab layouts, grills, edging stones – and endearingly, where possible, he’d pop the toe of his shoe into the picture.
Looking at these photographs now, I feel pride and understanding; I smile because these pictures are just ‘so Joe’. But at the time, I felt confusion, sadness, even panic. I wanted to connect with my child; I was scared that I wasn’t connecting, that I never would.
These photographs were taken near the beginning of our journey with autism and we have travelled a long way. I have come to accept (though still not fully come to terms with) the fact, that the relationship Joe and I have will never be the same as the one I have with my other children – and that this doesn’t devalue the relationship we have. I have learned to value Joe’s perspective. He sees ways out of practical problems I would never have considered, he has the ability to by-pass emotional baggage and see the logical solution, he can argue points of view that I would not have thought of and his approach to life is often thought provoking. The two of us still struggle, and this is by no means the end of our journey, but just as Joe’s early photographs showed me a school from a completely different angle, Joe continues to present the world from a different perspective, challenging me and reminding me to notice things differently to the way I do. He gives a valuable gift in that, one that I don’t underestimate. The ability to see things in a different way keeps life in perspective and brings new interest to the mundane. Autism brings with it unique challenges, but also unique insights, and those insights can only make life richer.
I’m looking forward to seeing Joe’s photographs from our walk today…