Name This Photograph

I am proud of this portrait.


I took this picture at Michael’s school where they brought him from his group home to attend a day program. Mike is profoundly retarded, nonverbal and autistic. I was given permission by the school administration to shadow him and take his picture, which I did on several occasions. On my first visit, one of the school counselors brought me to his classroom. When Michael saw me, he started to cry. I was stunned. I hadn’t seen him in quite a while and thought that perhaps I scared him.  But the counselor said that he had never acted that way with anyone else. Did he recognize me?   He didn’t act as if he was afraid of me.  I had to deduce that he knew me.  I would love to be able to communicate with Mike in real time, rather than deducing that we may have shared an emotional connection.

At that time, Mike’s favorite toy was the slinky. He took it everywhere. I thought of naming this photo ‘Slinky’ or ‘Hoops’.   I also thought of calling it ‘Brother From Another Planet’. In many ways I feel like he is from another planet and this photograph captures that essence. Is this disrespectful?   I intend no disrespect at all. What would you call this photograph?

Maybe this example better explains what I mean:  If you have ever been star gazing, perhaps you were told that if you looked at a faint star out of the corner of your eye, it gets brighter. If you look directly at it, the dimness returns. It is very hard to resist looking directly.

Is what happens with my brother? Is there something really there that I have to look away from to see?  I think this may be true, but I just can’t resist looking right at him. Why do the important things have to be so Zen?

9 thoughts on “Name This Photograph

  1. Hello Thank you for your blog. Sibling perspectives are important to the understanding of life with autism.

    I am a mother to two children with autism. I write about it at My older son is 1. And low verbal. For years he was non verbal. I experienced the same thoughts as you. I didn’t understand him. He felt foreign to me/disconnected.

    I have been so fortunate to learn as he has gained words such as “yes” and “no” to see that he is, in fact, ‘in there’. He understands what he sees and feels but is unable to show us most of this. I wonder if your brother’s tears were genuine emotions coming to the foreground?

    I will visit your blog often. Although both of my children have autism, they are also siblings to autism. I look forward to what you have to say.

    • Thank you for your comment, Amy. I am so happy that your children are improving. I am sure that your attention to them and your understanding is, in large part, responsible for their progress.

      Part of me agrees that my brother was expressing some kind of emotion. It is a loss, though, to think that I missed it at the time and that I couldn’t share it with him.

      • Great photo. So glad that you have it and that it jogs your memory to that moment of tears. I am amazed that with conditions such as autism and even advanced alzheimers that emotions are still intact somewhat and can be exhibited, although other avenues of communication are gone. I grew up with high functioning brain damaged sibling, but now her speech is quite diminished. It is very hard and my heart goes out to those of you who have very little connectedness with your children or sibling. I know I feel like I give and give but don’t get back in the normal sense, but have to trust that they are feeling my love but just can’t tell me.

  2. Thanks, Jill. I took my photographs and wrote my journals with the idea of jogging my memory later in life. I’m still wrestling with the idea of trusting that there is some kind of contact. Memory can be tricky – for me at any rate…

  3. Nothing surprises me with autism. Actually, that’s not true, I am continually surprised! I have no doubt that your brother recognized you, recognized that feeling of being with you, with family.

    • It is probably one of my issues to deal with, but I continually doubt that my brother recognizes me. I suppose that his low level of functioning and his inability to speak has something to do with that. Looking at all the photos I’ve taken and picking the appropriate ones to display (hopefully) leave the viewer with the same idea I want to get across. The questions that crop up all the time with me is: Did I miss these moments in real time or were they really absent? Photography is funny that way.

      Thanks for your comments!

  4. I have been reading your blogs about your brother and I see many similarities between your Mike and my son Ryan. My Ryan can speak but not very well and his thing is magazines and flyers. I’ve seen him find a picture in a flyer and hold on to it until it is no more than a little scrap of paper, but I wouldn’t dare throw it out. Like you I love my boy very much and wouldn’t give him up for anything.

    • Thank you for reading! I love the picture on your icon. I haven’t seen my brother in a long while, but he is being taken care of in the best possible way. Better than I or any of my family could do. I still lament the fact that he is not reachable and think of past occasions when I thought I was very close to some kind of contact, but it just didn’t happen. I’m feeling a little bitter-sweet at the moment.

      I’m so glad that you commented.



  5. We are all storytellers. In the absence of the points of reference we are accustomed, our brains automatically make a story to manage the unrecognizable cognitions. Evidently, your Brother emoted for you deeply and uniquely. The words and the non verbal social culture were not expressable concepts. However, tears are a universal symbol of cherished attachment. — The Healing Garden gardener

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