For years, Ann Rounseville of Newton believed she would never have the kind of family photos that other parents take for granted.
Rounseville’s young son Luke has autism, and in his mother’s words, the quirky and unpredictable behaviors that can accompany that condition mean “you can’t just take him to the Sears studio and have him smile for the camera, or even count on things going well if a professional photographer were to come to our house.”
But Rounseville’s dreams of whimsical family portraits came true when she met Kristin Chalmers, an Arlington-based artist who specializes in photographing children with autism.
“Kristin understands that kids like Luke have to be allowed to shine in their own way,” Rounseville said. “She took pictures of Luke riding a pony in his therapy session. She manages to take pictures of these kids doing the unusual things they do, but her photos somehow normalize what they are doing by making them just look like kids being kids.”
Chalmers’ special empathy for children with autism comes naturally. Aside from being a professional photographer, she is also the mother of a child on the autism spectrum.
But her experience with filming autistic children dates back even earlier than her own son’s infancy: Her best friend’s son is also autistic, and one day when Chalmers stopped by her friend’s house, the boy was playing loud music and dancing in the basement. She knew that the boy’s parents were disappointed not to have any good photos of him, so she brought her camera downstairs and began dancing with him.
“He looked me dead in the eye and started to smile,” she said. “Then I picked up my camera and shot 10 frames of him.”
Later, Chalmers began to detect signs of developmental problems in her own little boy.
“One of the markers [of autism spectrum disorder] in young children is that they don’t respond to their name,” Chalmers said. “I tried saying his name over and over again but he wouldn’t respond. Then one day I took out my new digital camera. I took a picture and showed him the image and said, ‘That is you!’ And he just lit up.”
So it only made sense that when the Camphill Special School, a residential program in Pennsylvania for children and young adults with autism needed a photographer for a book commemorating its 50th anniversary, its leaders found their way eventually to Chalmers.
Since taking on that job, she has visited the school’s bucolic Phoenixville farm at least three times and has been profoundly affected by what she witnessed there.
“As I spent more time on the campus, the students recognized me. There was one student who would always salute me,” Chalmers said. “A lot of my role in getting the photos I needed was about being a quiet, passive observer. I like to say I have the patience of Job because I am the parent of a kid with autism, and patience was what was needed for this project. I’d like to continue going every year; it’s like my second home now.”
And it’s not just the wish to take more photos of her own that makes Chalmers want to return.
During one of her visits, a female student from the school followed Chalmers around carrying her own point-and-shoot camera. One day Chalmers asked to see the camera. Scrolling through the girl’s images, she discovered a series of breathtakingly beautiful pictures of flowers and began to think about what it might mean for more of these students to be encouraged to take pictures of the world around them.
The idea eventually blossomed into a foundation, now in its nascent stages, which Chalmers calls the Broad Spectrum Project.
“My goal with this foundation is to supply each kid there with a camera and let them take their own photos. These kids are reachable; they just don’t communicate the way we as a society want them to. That doesn’t mean they aren’t trying. This might be another way for them to communicate.”
Now, the new Mankiw Family Gallery at Chapel Hill-Chauncy Hall School, a private college prep school in Waltham, is exhibiting Chalmers’s photos of children and young adults with autism. Gallery curator Cynthia Ludlam, who is also head of the art department at Chapel Hill-Chauncy Hall, was familiar with Chalmers as a wedding and portrait photographer, but when Chalmers told her about her stay at the Camphill Special School, Ludlam was fascinated and knew she’d found the perfect topic for the inaugural exhibit at her new gallery.
“I was so intrigued by her description of the project, and when she showed me a few of the images, I found it even more compelling. Kristin is using art and photography to show a different side of autism from what most people see,” Ludlam said. “She is challenging people’s preconceived notions about what it means to have autism.”
One of the children depicted in the current exhibition is Andrew Collins of Woburn, who was 11 and 12 years old when Chalmers took photos of him.
“Having Kristin take Andrew’s picture was an amazing opportunity,” said Laurel Collins, Andrew’s mother. “She knows that kids with autism are difficult to engage. They do not typically smile or pose for cameras, and in fact they do not do much at all on command. She knows that to get an image that captures their essence, you have to enter their world.”
In Andrew’s case, said his mother, this meant understanding his obsession with teddy bears.
“Teddy bears make him happy, and Kristin wanted pictures in which he would be interacting with something, and she understood that bears are what interest him,’’ said Collins.
“Some people might find it weird to see a kid as big as Andrew playing with a teddy bear. But Kristin encouraged it. In the pictures she took, he looks so happy. And he’s a kid who doesn’t always express happiness with the structured world around him.”
Chalmers’ work will remain on exhibit through March 30 in the Mankiw Family Gallery at the Chapel Hill-Chauncy Hall School, 785 Beaver St. in Waltham. Gallery hours are weekdays 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. or by appointment. To learn more about Chalmers’s work and the Broad Spectrum Project, go to www.kristinchalmersphoto.com.