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.
“I like how you can make normal things look different and amazing,” Emma said.
“[My autism] might help me see things in different ways.”
Emma’s brother Max was initially more reluctant to get involved.
“He was too busy playing Minecraft but once he saw Emma, who he is very close to, getting involved, then he got into it,” Ms Hynes said.
The result was some incredibly abstract and unusual images of Darwin’s wharf, tiny crabs crawling on the beach, and images of Max’s shadow.
“My favourite is the wharf because it’s fabulous,” he said.
Exhibition brings parent and child closer
Other children’s photographs included close-up shots of toys, parrots and breakfast materials, with pets a common theme in the exhibition at Darwin’s Northern Centre for Contemporary Art.
“The eye-opening thing for me is the sweetness of all their photos,” Mr McCallum said.
“Their bonds with their pets. There seems to be a real connection between kids on the spectrum and their pets, judging by the photographs seen.”
At a preview of Spectrum on Tuesday, Autism NT’s executive officer Cherie Vance said the final result was so impressive that it was being considered for an annual event opened up to the broader ASD community.
Ms Vance said the exhibition had been a “great talking point” and would hopefully give people an insight into children who often kept emotions to themselves.
“It’s also something for the parents and the child to connect with as well,” she said.
“We see it as about relationship building and acceptance.”
This post originally appeared on ABC News.
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