house pictured through a haze of snowflakes

My Son Doesn't Smile for Photos (and That's OK)

From the beginning, my son wasn’t much of a smiler. We could never get him to do it on command. By the time he was 1, Jasper looked either anxious or furious most days. Relatives, nurses, friends and strangers would try to get him to crack a grin, as if a serious baby was a danger, an affront to the definition of a child. “What does that little guy have to be so worried about?” a man once asked while we were out walking a new city.

At 2, we took him to a photographer’s studio; I thought that’s what parents were suppose to do — get professional pictures taken of their children to hand out to family members. Though the light in the studio was perfect that afternoon, and my son appeared to be glowing, I had trouble picking out pictures I thought my parents or anyone else would understand. Jasper appeared worried in all of them, his eyes looking away rather than into the lens of the camera.

He used to cry a lot back then. To calm himself, he’d study things like the rotating blades of fans or wires coming out of the walls. Looking back, I think he was trying to make sense of the world, a place into which he often struggled to fit. At 7, after years of frustration and bewilderment, he was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Though his autism is not always visible, it is always there.

Now at 9, Jasper still doesn’t smile for photographs. Often, he refuses to be in pictures at all. And while, for some reason, this seems to bother a lot of people, I’ve learned to accept it.

“C’mon, smile,” is a common request. And one to which many kids might respond by turning on their “picture smiles,” the ones we’re often trained since birth to master. But my son doesn’t have that kind of cute, forced grin.

It’s caused some conflict during group outings, when my friends’ children pile onto picnic tables and look adorable, ready for a photo op. Everyone shouts for Jasper to get in the picture, too, but he doesn’t come. For our annual family reunion, my mom’s dream is to gather all of her grinning grandchildren around her for a picture. Jasper’s refusal to smile, or to be present in the picture at all, might be seen as a refusal of love and also, I suppose, ineffective parenting on my part.

“Get in the picture,” I used to tell my son.

“No,” he’d shout back.

“Get in the picture, now!” Embarrassed, frustrated and confused, I was always aware that people were watching.


By the time my son was diagnosed with autism, I had given up trying to force him to pose for pictures. In part because I was tired. Demanding that my child act like other kids was exhausting, for both of us. At the same time, I was beginning to understand how being a parent meant helping my son be himself in the world. It meant supporting the particular choices he needed to make, even if those weren’t the choices of other kids.

Not too long ago, we bought Jasper a camera. At group gatherings, he’s become our unofficial photographer. Nobody tells the photographer to smile. Have you noticed that? Likewise, no one stares at the actual person behind the camera. Everyone is too busy staring into the lens.

When he’s taking photos, Jasper doesn’t count down from three. He doesn’t say, “Cheese!” or try to aim the camera from a flattering angle. He takes the picture when he wants to. Often, we end up looking unprepared, or should I say: real.

I love the family photos my son takes.

And when he takes pictures of his classmates, or of his sister, and shares them with me, I feel like I’m eavesdropping on a private exchange. The expressions on the other children’s faces feel so sincere and secret. I’ve never heard him tell anyone to smile when he’s about to take a picture.

Jasper brings his camera along on outings when he can. I think he likes the world better when he looks at it through a viewfinder, framing the setting, taking in only as much as he wants, zooming in, zooming in some more. Lately, he’s been editing out all the color of the photos he takes, turning a bright summer scene into something that’s dark, moody, mysterious, but also beautiful in its own way. Maybe this is how he sees the world. Or maybe this is how he wishes the world would be.

Image via Jasper Urbanski.

A version of this post originally appeared on Motherwell.

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17 Things People on the Autism Spectrum Wish Others Would Stop Saying

As a society, we’ve taken some significant steps towards greater acceptance of individuals with autism spectrum disorder in recent years — from mainstream television portraying characters on the spectrum, to large corporations finding ways to better support the community. But despite increasing information and awareness, many people still may not know how to respond to an autism diagnosis in a way that reflects true understanding of the community and the experiences of those on the spectrum.

Even the things that are becoming more commonly known about autism — for example, the difficulty for some people on the spectrum to maintain eye contact or navigate social situations — can be detrimental to the community in the form of generalizations and stereotypes and ignoring an autistic individual’s unique experience.

To help foster more understanding, we asked our readers on the autism spectrum to share things they’ve heard that they wish others would stop saying.

Here’s what the community had to say:

1. “I really wish people would stop saying, ‘Oh, but you’re so normal.’ When people say this, it feels like it is discrediting all the work I have done to get to the point where I am almost ‘normal.’”

2. “‘I won’t have my child vaccinated. The risk of autism is just too high!’ Both myself, my younger brother and my son are on the spectrum. It’s so lovely to hear, on a regular basis, that parents would rather potentially expose their precious children to deadly diseases than have them ‘end up’ like me.”

3. “I wish people wouldn’t say, ‘Oh, but aren’t we all a little autistic?’”

4. “I hate it when people say I’m ‘acting crazy’ and ‘You need to calm down.’ Sensory overload isn’t fun, and even at my age, it still happens more often than not. It doesn’t make me ‘crazy,’ and I’m not overreacting. I just get overwhelmed.”

5. “I just asked my 9-year-old son, and he said he wished others would stop telling him to stop making his clicking noise because he likes the way it gives pressure in his mouth and he feels calm. He wishes other people better understood how he gets calm.”

6. “When I’m trying to explain the anxiety I feel about crowded places and loud noise and people minimize it by saying, “Well, yeah, I don’t like that either.” It’s as if I’m making a big deal out of something so menial, but they don’t get how my sensory sensitivities can cause me physical discomfort and distress. I’m not being dramatic.”

7. “When people tell me I don’t have feelings or shouldn’t/cant have emotions. I most certainly do have emotions, it just takes me a little longer to understand them.”

8. “I wish people would stop saying, ‘Are you sure you actually have Asperger’s/ASD?’ People are so quick to judge someone’s current situation, not understanding where they came from and what it took them to get where they are today.”

9. “‘So and so’s son/daughter has autism, but theirs is much more severe than yours.’ Just because you cannot always see it, doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.”

10. “‘You’re incapable of knowing what others are actually saying, thinking, or feeling’ — said the people who hurt me the deepest throughout my life.”

11. “My personal favorite: ‘Oh, I know someone with autism.’ *Person continues to ramble generic stereotypes like a lecture and ignore you as an individual.*”

12. “‘I am so sorry you have that.’ There is nothing to be sorry about. Autism is another way that the world is looked at.”

13. “‘You must be like Rain Man, then!’ No. I’m legit not.”

14. “My kid wishes other kids would stop using the word ‘autistic’ as an insult.”

15. “A schoolteacher told me my Asperger’s is an ‘excuse.’”

16. “’Can you please look me in the eye?’ No, I can’t.”

17. “My 11-year-old daughter said, ‘I don’t like it when people say I can’t do something. I can do anything. It might be harder and take longer because my brain needs more time, but I can do it.’”

Image via Thinkstock.

17 Things People on the Autism Spectrum Wish Others Would Stop Saying

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