When Darwin tradesman Darren McCallum gave his nine-year-old daughter a $90 digital camera, its lens ended up focused on everything from the family staffy dog to their evening dinners.
“Jazzie asked [one dinner] if she could put her finger in jelly before we served it,” Mr McCallum said.
“She put her whole hand in, which makes for a good shot.
“I look at the [resulting] photo and know that the tactile side of the autism spectrum is alive and well.”
Diagnosed as being “on the spectrum” several years ago, Jazzie is one of 11 autistic Darwin children aged between six and 15 that have come together for a photography exhibition, Spectrum, showcasing the way they see the world.
Mr McCallum came up with the exhibition idea after spotting “quirky photos” on Jazzie’s iPad.
“I thought it would be interesting if we had some kids on the spectrum with cameras and let them go for it for two weeks.
“Ask them to take photos of their world, with no guidance.”
The idea quickly evolved as Mr McCallum contacted other people in Darwin’s autism support community — a “melting pot” network of adults, children, parents and the loved ones of diagnosed people.
There is no known definitive cause of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and symptoms vary widely with the individual, with indicators including limited communication skills, introversion, rigid behaviour patterns and sensitivity to tactile and sensory inputs.
While awareness is increasing, many children involved in the exhibition have experienced bullying at school or judgment from the wider community.
“One child [involved] didn’t want to invite anybody to the final exhibition,” Mr McCallum said.
“That was an eye-opener for me about the work that still needs to be done out there. Hopefully things like this [exhibition] go a small way towards acceptance and understanding.”
‘It’s nothing to be ashamed of’
With two children under 14 on the autism spectrum, Michelle Hynes is well aware of the stares that can come along with a sensory overload experience at the busy local supermarket.
“When we took Max as a baby to [Darwin’s shopping centre] he’d scream the whole time and I didn’t know why,” she said.
“I don’t think we went to the big shops, as we called it, for five years because it was too stressful.”
These days Ms Hynes is a passionate advocate for her “Aspy family” on social media, and believes it is better to “embrace” than look for a “cure”.
“It’s nothing to be ashamed of but some do shy away after diagnosis,” she said.
“We love our quirky kids. It’s about getting the message out that they’re not outcasts and they just think a bit differently.”
Ms Hynes said the “different” world view of people with ASD was well known to lead itself to artistic pursuits like art or music, and that it gave her “goosebumps” to look at the work on display at Spectrum.
Her 14-year-old daughter Emma, who already had a love of photography and received her first camera at age seven, took about 100 images during her two-week participation in Spectrum.