Photographing struggle or difficulty can help us, as photographers, deepen our own understanding of our subject’s experience. Through our lens, we can gain a more clear perspective on what the other person is truly going through. And when our subject is someone we love, this process of observation and documentation can be sort of like therapy.

We, as artists, need to adapt to the special needs of our subjects. If we hope to capture real, authentic moments and meaningful interactions, we must let go of perfect and learn to photograph life as it is.

I am the mother of a five-year-old boy diagnosed with autism and sensory processing disorder (SPD). The art of photography has granted me a different perspective into my son’s struggles, and has deepened my understanding of his emotions. Photography has allowed me to closely examine the way he sees the world. But first, I had to learn to let go of being Instagram perfect and adapt to what my son needed. Once I learned how to document his true experience, I was able to capture what our life really looked like.

Here’s our story and how photographing struggle helped me capture what’s really important.

Photographing struggle - autistic child photographed with mom
This is a self-portrait of Jase and me.

I am the mother of a child with special needs.

As time went by, we became increasingly aware that our son, Jase, had strong reactions to common everyday situations. At first, we shrugged it off as being typical behavior he would grow out of, but we soon realized he was becoming more and more emotional and uncomfortable with situations that triggered his senses.

For example, the sound of automatic toilets and hand dryers in public restrooms resulted in odd meltdowns where he covered his ears. We had to dismantle smoke detectors in our home because if they accidentally alarmed it would severely traumatize him. Any accidental splashing of wet or slimy textures, including food, caused him to gag and cry. He was afraid to stand inside his sandbox because the grit of the sand felt “hurty” to his bare feet. We avoided leaving the house when it rained because even the smallest rain drop on his sleeve would leave him screaming. Trying to understand what our son was going through and how to help him was frustrating, confusing, and quite depressing. In May 2017, Jase was officially diagnosed with SPD.

What worked for photographing other kids didn’t work for my son.

During this time, I became a professional photographer and was introduced to the inspiring world of Instagram. I admired other photographers’ ideas for documenting childhood and wanted to incorporate the same ideas with Jase. I became hooked on trying to achieve the exact posing and setups.

But in reality, Jase was not like these children. He didn’t enjoy jumping in mud puddles or having the messy chocolate face. When I tried photographing him, all my prompts and staged ideas completely backfired. Even the helpful tips and tricks I read from photographers who did this for a living didn’t help. Jase didn’t want to cooperate with me — and not because he was being a brat about it — because he was physically and emotionally uncomfortable.

Jase became agitated at the sight of my camera and often complained about the shutter sound. My prompts were received as demanding and confusing and resulted in full blown meltdowns. I was left feeling discouraged and lost on how exactly I would document our son’s childhood.

Photographing struggle - autistic child quietly at table
An exercise that trains Jase’s fine motor skills: threading beads through string. Or in this case, candy necklaces.

I had to let go of the idea of the perfect image.

It took me a while to realize that I was going about this whole thing completely wrong. I was attempting to mold our child into being “Instagram perfect” and it was crucial that I let this go. The most important thing was to photograph our son as his true self in a way that made him comfortable. I decided if I was going to photograph our son’s childhood, whether it be for a personal photo album or for the world to see, it needed to be real and not staged.

The fact of the matter was, the bulk of our son’s childhood was about struggles with his senses and an exhausting amount of therapy. These were the real moments. Photographing struggle was something I needed to do.

Photographing struggle - autistic child photo with train set
This photo was taken at a local railroad museum. Outside, there were several trains blowing whistles. Jase has on earmuffs to help muffle the sounds.

I began to photograph our real life.

As I began to pay more attention to Jase’s daily interactions, I observed his habits and all the little things he did that would usually go unnoticed. Jase was fascinated with putting his hand in the water that came out the kitchen faucet whenever I’d fill up the watering can. Why he was comfortable with water that came out of a faucet but not rainwater is something I could and would never understand, but regardless, it was a routine of his and it was important.

He often lined up his toys in a row and studied how equally spaced apart they were. Even his crayons where perfectly lined in a row, organized by the exact order of the colors of the rainbow. At home, we incorporated daily sensory play, fine motor skill activities, and utilized the outdoors to comfortably engage his senses. I made sure to take note of all of these things, and if he gave me permission, I would photograph it.

Photographing struggle - autistic child in winter
Jase experiencing the texture of snow. During this shot, we talked about why it snows and why it feels the way it feels. This helped calm him down.
Photographing struggle - autistic child photo on farm
Jase gently petting a goat at a local farm. He can be uneasy around animals and I admired how confident he was in touching this goat.
Photographing struggle - autistic child in mud puddle
Jase treading through a soggy and damp farm near our yard. Any mud or dirt on his boots usually upsets him. He is being brave here and is learning that it’s OK to have dirty footwear.

I learned to photograph my son in a way that made him comfortable.

Properly introducing my camera to Jase was extremely important because he was so fearful of the sight and sounds of it. I’d let him hold my camera while showing him how to take a picture and what it looked like on the back of the LCD screen. I also disabled any camera sounds to avoid startling him.

Another important step was investing in a lens with a long focal length so I could respect Jase’s space. I learned to watch him from different perspectives and treaded lightly around him. If he was annoyed or uncomfortable, I immediately backed off.

Little by little, Jase started to trust me and became comfortable around my camera. We talked about any activities we were doing and I showed him every single photo that I took. I took photographs that involved Jase using his senses in nature, engaging in sensory play at our kitchen table, and of his progress and struggles during his weekly therapy sessions.

Sometimes I photographed him doing nothing at all but being himself.

Photographing struggle - autistic child at therapy
Jase at occupational therapy using the platform swing. The swing helps engage Jase’s vestibular sense, while the headphones play classical music for calmness.

I was able to document real, authentic moments that mattered to us.

As he gradually began to improve with his sensory issues, with the help of ongoing therapy, I was there to photograph it. I was there to document his first time standing in a mud puddle and his first time fully stepping into his sandbox with bare feet. I even captured him touching a snowflake.

And the best part was that he allowed me to document those moments.

Photographing struggle - autistic child photo in sandbox
Jase finally gets inside his sandbox. A huge milestone in his SPD journey.

Photographing the journey helps us remember far we’ve come.

I now have a meaningful collection of photographs showing where Jase started to where he is now. We have several albums of Jase just being Jase in real, authentic moments. This was his childhood and these are the important things to remember.

Tips for photographing children with SPD

1. Choose the right location.

When photographing someone with SPD, it’s extremely important to scope out your location beforehand.

Sounds: You’ll need to ensure that there are no loud sounds (like buzzing or clicking). Be mindful of any nearby trains, construction work, or highways with rushing traffic.

Textures: Make sure your location isn’t overly wet or muddy, and that it doesn’t contain any textures such as large rocks or sand that could create a sensory overload.

Weather: Check the weather daily before the session and on the day of. Even the slightest chance of rain, wind, or snow could cause emotional distress.

Encourage your clients to bring items that will make them comfortable with the session. I always recommend extra clothes, shoes, and earmuffs to mute any sudden sounds.

2. Use a longer focal length.

When photographing kids with special needs, I recommend using a longer focal length lens to create adequate space between you and the subject.

Personally, my AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G and my AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/2.8 IF-ED are my go-to lenses. I also use my Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art lens for indoor shots if Jase is comfortable enough.

Don’t forget to double check that any sounds on your camera (such as focusing beeps) are either turned to low or completely off. Use a silent shutter if possible.

3. Be patient and compassionate.

Get your clients’ full permission before photographing, and ensure that they are a hundred percent comfortable. If you’re doing documentary work, discuss the role that photography has in being an educational tool. Be sensitive and understanding to the individual needs of your client.

If things don’t work out, reschedule the session and wait till your client is ready.

Photographing struggle - autistic child in mud puddle
The first time Jase was comfortable enough to completely step into a puddle and sink his hands into it. The joy and relief I felt during this moment is beyond words. Even Jase was thrilled.

How photographing struggle can be therapeutic.

The art of photography granted me a different perspective into Jase’s struggles with SPD. It pulled me into a deep understanding of how emotional he would get over things that wouldn’t make any sense to me. I was able to closely examine his curiosity, his concentration, and his hesitation. I even observed his joys and his fears with therapy.

Jase trained me to see the world through his eyes and not what I wanted others to see. I learned to be sensitive to his feelings and respect his boundaries. I was forced to let go of perfection. It was freeing to let Jase lead the way.

Documenting our journey has also introduced me to other parents who have children going through similar situations. It has been quite therapeutic having that support system from other families, knowing that we aren’t alone in a life revolving around a special needs child.

Photos by Katharine Vogel