Last week, Alex, Ed, and I did something Alex would characterize as “extremely rare”: we had a professional photographer take a family portrait of us. The last time we had a photographer take our family picture was in the fall of 1994, when Alex was a few months shy of turning three years old. Sitting on Ed’s lap, toddler Alex doesn’t look at the camera, but Ed and I are happily smiling, blissfully unaware that our child has autism because he wouldn’t receive that diagnosis for another year. My school’s photographer, who had offered a complimentary picture package for me since I had worked with him for several years in my role as yearbook sponsor, took that picture. While I snapped many photos of Alex when he was little, we only took him twice to have his picture taken professionally when he was about six months old and again when he was about eighteen months old. Having seen many professional photographs of little kids with their eyes red and noses running from crying during photo sessions, we opted to stick with candid photos of Alex instead. Once he was diagnosed with autism, we were uncertain how he would deal with bright lights, unfamiliar settings, and a stranger telling him what to do, which is why our only family portrait is now more than sixteen years old.
A couple of weeks ago, the editor of Valparaiso University’s alumni magazine contacted Ed because he was interested in writing an article about the autism blogs that Ed and I write. In addition, he arranged for a photo session with the three of us to provide a photograph to accompany the article. As the picture day approached, I felt some apprehension, not knowing how Alex would react to the new situation, and I was uncertain about how the photographer would handle a teenager with autism. Fortunately, Alex was calm and in a very good mood the day of the photo session, which eased my concerns a bit. When we arrived to have our picture taken, we discovered that we would have our hair and make-up done before being photographed. Now Ed was the one with trepidation, as he wasn’t thrilled with that idea. Alex, on the other hand, loves to be groomed, and he happily sat still as a pretty and personable young woman fixed his hair and applied a light coat of powder to his face. Similarly, I enjoyed the pampering since I’ve never had makeup professionally applied. Once we were deemed camera-ready, we waited for the photo session to begin.
When the photographer introduced himself, I was impressed that he warmly greeted Alex first. He asked Alex how he was, but Alex misunderstood the question and thought he was asking how old he was, so he told the photographer that he was nineteen. The photographer told Alex that his name was Tom and that he was 53, which delighted Alex, who loves to quantify people by numbers. As Alex laughed, I explained to Tom that Alex likes to know people’s ages, but we won’t let him ask adults how old they are. His volunteering his age instantly endeared him to Alex. Moreover, he offered to show Alex how his computer captures digital images and uses numerical values to indicate light and shadow. Allowing Alex to maneuver his computer mouse, Tom explained that pure white has a value of 255 and asked if Alex had an idea what numerical value pure black has. Without missing a beat, Alex told him, “Zero,” which was the correct answer. Since we were amazed that he immediately came up with the right response, I asked Alex if he had guessed or if he actually knew the number. He told me that he’d read it on the Internet. Once we began the session, Tom continued to engage Alex in the process, talking with him as if he were an old friend. After finding out that Alex is interested in math and pi digits, he had Alex say, "Pi" instead of "Cheese" before snapping the pictures. Ed and I appreciated that Tom treated Alex with a natural kindness that put all of us at ease. Whenever people show patience and understanding with Alex, we feel blessed that God has brought those people into our lives, even if for a brief time because they bring out the best in Alex. Despite our concerns about how this situation would go, we found this family photo session to be pleasant and memorable, thanks to all the people involved whose friendliness and understanding made the experience fun for Alex, and, therefore, enjoyable for Ed and me, as well.
“A glad heart makes a happy face…” Proverbs 15:13