How I Became a Special Needs-Friendly Photographer

Some paths in life you don't choose...they sort of choose you. I've always loved taking pictures. I was the yearbook editor in high school and in addition to writing captions and designing layouts, I also occasionally took photographs. It was the early 2000s and it was during that transitional timeframe in which we had a darkroom, but we also had a digital camera. I loved the instant gratification of shooting digitally and knowing immediately what you captured. But there was something special about shooting with film - having an image in your mind of what you think you're capturing and yet not seeing the full picture until it slowly emerges through the development process.

Although I shoot exclusively digital now, that process of having a picture in your mind and seeing the image develop into what it's actually meant to be, is the best description I can give of my journey as a parent of a special needs child. In some ways it's nothing like what I envisioned. And it's everything I never knew I needed, all in one.

When my son Cooper was diagnosed with autism, I was prepared for the appointments. The speech therapy, the occupational therapy. The countless appointments to rule out other issues, all for the sake of insurance. But what I wasn't prepared for, and perhaps one of the most challenging components for families, is how autism can impact virtually all aspects of everyday life. Going out to dinner. Going to a grocery store. Taking a different path home. Going to a birthday party. And yes, even family photographs.

When my son's dad and I were still married, we did one photo shoot together as a family, mainly out of a hesitation to pay for a photographer without knowing how the photos would turn out. It was hard for Cooper, still is really, to sit still or look at the camera. So when a local budding photographer did sessions at an incredibly low rate (too low, honestly), we signed up. The pictures turned out alright I suppose, but we never tried doing them again.

Fast forward a few years and some life changes later, and I reached out to my friend Lindsay, a phenomenal photographer, to take some updated photos of Cooper and me. She had been around Cooper since he was a baby and knew what a session would need to look like for us - quick, on the move, and adaptable. She captured us, just as we are, even down to Cooper's uneven haircut that his sensory issues had prevented us from finishing the day before. And those photos are my favorite pictures of us to this day, mainly because they're real. They're not some overly-filtered piece of fiction in a frame on the wall.

I was having lunch with Lindsay about a year later and told her of an idea I had to take photos specifically for special-needs families. I explained my hesitation years ago to have pictures made, and told her I felt like there was a need in the marketplace for families like mine, families who might not have someone like her in their life. She not only loved the idea, she helped me pick out my camera and gave me a refresher course when it came in. Talk about a blessing.

So that's what brought me here to this post you're reading. For me, being a special needs-friendly photographer means understanding my audience. It means knowing that meltdowns or last minute doctor's appointments can require a flexible cancellation policy. It means understanding that location isn't just about the lighting and the scenery but elopement and accessibility. But most of all, it means taking photos of people and families simply as they are - the image that has emerged, captured by a Creator who has already envisioned the full picture.

"I will praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well."

—Psalm 139:14

My son, Cooper.