A photography project that began as a way for a father to try to understand his son who has autism turned into a book that has touched a chord with other parents of children with autism around the world.
After his book, “Ecolilia,” was published, Timothy Archibald, a nationally known commercial photographer who lives in San Francisco, said, “I got letters and photos from all over the world. ... ‘Oh, that’s my kid in those pictures,’ ” he said.
Archibald spoke at the Manship Theatre on April 13 as part of the Baton Rouge Autism Speaker Series presented by the Junior League of Baton Rouge and the Baton Rouge Speech & Hearing Foundation.
Photographs that appear in his book, published in 2010, will be on exhibit through May 10 in The Gallery at Manship Theatre, on the second floor of the Shaw Center for the Arts downtown.
Also in the gallery are photographs of children on the autism spectrum who live in the Baton Rouge area.
The public, as well as parents of children who use the services of the local Speech & Hearing Foundation, were invited to submit photos of their children on the autism spectrum, and 20 photos were selected.
Underneath each photograph is a caption about the child, written by the parent.
The caption under a photograph of twin brothers on a swing set reads, “They look at the world as a puzzle and put it together little by little every day.”
“The show as a whole is fascinating to me,” Archibald said on the Friday before his presentation.
“This is the part that makes it everything ... that’s where you get the idea of these parents celebrating their kids,” he said of the photo contributions from the community.
The name of “Echolilia,” which has been featured in the New York Times and National Geographic, is Archibald’s fanciful rendition of a real word, echolalia.
It means the “immediate and involuntary repetition of words or phases just spoken by others, often a symptom of autism,” according to a definition provided in the gallery exhibit.
Echolalia also means “an infant’s repetition of the sounds made by others, a normal occurrence in childhood development.”
Archibald’s son, Eli, 11, who has autism and is featured in his father’s book, has the condition, Archibald said.
For about three years, from the time Eli was 5 to about the time he was 8, the father and son worked on the photography project.
It began after Archibald took a picture of a stick that Eli had carefully bent in three places to make the shape of a very nice square.
“What does this mean?” Archibald asked himself, looking at “this perfect square ... this beautiful object.”
“It was the thing that started the path” of the photography project, he said.
Archibald said that, as he and his wife had begun to raise their first child, “everything was harder for us.”
They began to think that maybe “we weren’t meant to be parents,” that they weren’t very good at it, he said.
“I remember a period when I couldn’t figure out my son,” Archibald said.
When Eli began kindergarten, his parents’ family members were wondering what was “wrong with Eli,” and the couple was getting calls from school about their son, who would sometimes have “tantrums, like storms, for hours,” Archibald said.
“What was going on with Eli was taking over our lives,” he said.
Archibald began to look for clues to understanding his son. There were several misdiagnoses for Eli and he was prescribed medicine that was useless, Archibald said.
He and his wife never thought of autism, however, he said. It was a neighbor, who worked with children on the autism spectrum, who first brought it up, he said.
As the family learned about autism, the photo project became a shared activity for father and son.
Once, Archibald said, his son looked at the picture his dad had just taken on the digital camera and said, “Wow!”
“Suddenly we had a place to connect,” he said.
Archibald said he often felt merely like the “camera holder” for the pictures, following his son’s lead.
Eli would be interested in something, he and his dad would decide to make a picture of it and dad would have just a few minutes “frantically pressing buttons” until Eli lost interest, Archibald said.
“I couldn’t make him pose for a photograph — he’s very strong-willed,” Archibald said.
“As a (commercial) photographer, I was controlling of things (in the picture). None of that would fly with this kid,” he said.
Eli is sometimes doing things that look lonesome or uncomfortable, even disquieting, to the average viewer — curled up snuggly in a box, putting a wide rubber band around his head.
But from Eli’s viewpoint, the activities and the items in the pictures were of great interest and the reason the photos were taken in the first place.
In some of the photos, Eli is undressed, but not exposed. It makes him seem even more vulnerable. Archibald said his oldest son would prefer to just not wear clothes at home, a situation that’s had to change as Eli has gotten older.
After three years, the photography project had run its course.
“It had a beginning and an end; there was an arc to it. Then we graduated out of it. ... I think it got us over a hump,” Archibald said.
Eli, who attends public school in California, is a straight-A student, Archibald said.
Archibald and his wife also have a younger son, Wilson, 7, who does not have autism. Archibald and Wilson have begun taking their own photographs.
Archibald said he realized his younger son has probably also been affected by his brother’s autism.
“I don’t even think ‘I have an autistic kid’ anymore. Autism has entered the family, and it’s affected all of us,” Archibald said.
Archibald’s work can be seen at the website http://www.timothyarchibald.com.
Audrey Wascome, of the Junior League and chairwoman of the Autism Speaker Series Committee, said, “I think all of us are trying to figure our children out.”
She and her husband, Eric, have two young sons, Tucker, 8, and Rex, 5, both of whom are on the autism spectrum, she said.
Their photographs are in the exhibit at the Shaw Center.
Wascome’s brother took the picture of her son Tucker for an LSU photography class several years ago, she said.
In the picture, Tucker looks clearly exasperated, probably because he was interrupted in playing with the toy train cars behind him that he had lined up neatly.
The little frustrated frown he gave the camera seemed to “sum him up” especially in his younger years, Wascome said, and helped her decide to initiate a photo project in the community.
Tucker was at Archibald’s recent program with his parents.
At the photo exhibit, Tucker said the picture of his little brother, dressed in a superhero costume and with a big smile on his face, was his favorite one.