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Autistic Photographer Captures the Perfectly Diverse 'Faces of Autism'

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Shauna Phoon never understood why she felt like an “other.”

After nearly a decade of therapy, of trying to understand why she saw and digested the world so differently, Phoon received an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) diagnosis in her early 20s. “I was finally able to put all these pieces about myself together,” Phoon, now 26, told The Mighty in an email. “It was a very cathartic process.”

The photographer from Melbourne grew intrigued by the other autistic people in her life — how similar but how diverse they were to her and each other.

“After years of feeling ‘other’ to everyone else, after years of feeling different and isolated, I finally feel like there are other people who understand the innate sense of ‘unlike’ that I do,” Phoon said.

Around the same time, she found new research from the Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging at Carnegie Mellon University that collected fMri brain scans of people with and without autism. People without autism had consistent activation patterns between different brain regions, while autistic people had inconsistent patterns; each autistic person, as Phoon puts it, showed “a unique pattern of communication strengths.”

The study inspired her to try to capture both the universal experience but wonderfully broad spectrum of autism in photographs — a project that’s become her growing series “The Absence of Normal – Faces of Autism.

self portrait of photographer sitting facing mirror
Self-portrat of Shauna Phoon, 26, photographer behind “The Absence of Normal” | Interests: Rocks (lapidary), making/building/fixing, organizing things, eating all the food. In three words, she describes herself as “contradictory, flicker, odd.”
man slides down arm rail
Karl Glaser, 25 | Photo by Shauna Phoon, from “The Absence of Normal.”
autistic man smiling, leaning against wall
Karl Glaser, 25 | Photo by Shauna Phoon, from “The Absence of Normal.”

Phoon’s subjects, so far all from Melbourne, range in age, gender identity and race. She asks each person about their interests and to describe themselves in three words. Karl Glaser (above), 25, likes “programming stuff, experimenting with stuff, surfing and skateboarding; and describes himself as a “beady weasel gremlin.” Nathaniel (below), 10, has an interest in blood magic, necromancy, Legos and video games; and describes himself as “evil. king. bear.”

“We are all intrinsically different,” Phoon writes on Tumblr. “What unites us is our exception to the norm.”

boy wearing cape drinks juice box
Nathaniel, 9 or 10 | Photo by Shauna Phoon, from “The Absence of Normal.”
boy in cape poses like superman
Nathaniel, 9 or 10 | Photo by Shauna Phoon, from “The Absence of Normal.”

Even in its early stages, making the project has had its powerful moments — one in particular was caught on camera, but not by Phoon. While photographing Glaser, Phoon’s father texted her that her dog was sick. She put down the camera and sat on the sidewalk next to Glaser to process the news. Her partner photographed the scene, noting the two looked like “two children who lost their ice cream.” Glaser later gave Phoon a lift home so she could spend the last 10 minutes of her dog’s life with him in her arms. Phoon says if he hadn’t driven her, she would have missed it all. Despite the sad story behind it, Phoon cherishes the photo below.

Glaser and Phoon sit on sidewalk
Glaser (left) and Phoon

“It feels like a moment of solidarity and kinship to me,” she told The Mighty.

Which is sort of the point of the whole project.

“I love and admire all the different ways in which we appear on the spectrum,” she said, “and I hope to be able to capture the appreciation and solidarity I feel for my autistic ‘siblings.’”

man smiling, black and white photo
Falan Sol-Avar, 32. Interests include writing, deconstructing complex systems (to “fix” them), experimenting, living forever, creating utopia (and getting kicked out). In three words he’d describe himself as “Borg. Resistance. Mastermind.”

Phoon hopes autistic people who find her project will see others who, in ways, look and act like them, but still own their individuality. “I want them to see there isn’t a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way of being autistic,” she said.

At the same time, she wants the portraits to defy how the media usually portrays autism.

“We are not just [a] stereotype,” Phoon said. “We don’t need to be ‘cured’ or ‘fixed.’ Our differences make us unique but no less deserving of acceptance and love.”

person sitting in garden
Kelly Nicholas, 32 | Photo by Shauna Phoon, from “The Absence of Normal.”
person standing against wall
Kelly Nicholas, 32, has interests in reading, video games, costuming, acrobatics and dance. Nicholas is a non-binary genderqueer. | Photo by Shawna Phoon, from “The Absence of Normal.”
photographer's grandfather
Phoon’s grandfather, “who is definitely on the spectrum. I like to think of him as the river from which my autism flows.”

If you would like to participate in Phoon’s project, head here. She is actively seeking more subjects. For more photos from this series, head here.

Originally published: March 2, 2016
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