Sometime around Christmas, I was chatting with a friend of mine about the challenges and joys of being a mom to a child with Autism. We started talking about how wonderful it would be to photograph the moms we knew with their children – to capture some of that magic in a bottle. I opened up a model call in January and quickly gathered a long list of names of women eager to participate.
One of these women was Luisella. Luisella’s son, Mikey, attends the same school as my son Cooper does and is the sweetest, most charming boy ever (well, besides my own!). The weather gods were against us and we continually kept rescheduling due to threats of snow and ice. But finally, the day arrived and it was magic.
My model call was free – but in exchange, moms had to tell their story. The good and the bad. Part of what has taken me so long to complete this series is that their stories are sooo powerful, I can’t get through this without crying – let alone be able to tell them again.
When Sella was 33 years old, she attended a party at a friends house and naturally, Mikey, then 2, went along. After Sella left, another party guest – a specialist in Autism - told the host that Sella needed to contact her immediately. She had observed Mikey throughout the day and was concerned that he was showing signs of Autism. That party guest’s instincts were right, and Mikey was diagnosed with Autism shortly after.
Mikey is now a pre-teen. He arrived at the studio early with a family friend, to give him time to acclimate to the environment. He was instantly enamored. Mikey doesn’t speak a lot. He is largely non-verbal but he can communicate with simple words and sentences and is pretty effective with non-verbal communication as well. If you slow down and focus on him, it’s not hard to understand what he wants and needs. And BOY, does he have personality.
I took Mikey into the shooting room of the studio, which was a little packed with items as we were in the middle of a remodel. One of those items was a white bed that I had pushed up against a window to use for cuddle shots. Mikey laid down, stretched out and gave me the best Bert Reynolds pose I’d seen in years! We all couldn’t stop laughing.
Shortly after, Sella joined us. Mikey was relaxed and comfortable in the studio and thrilled to have his mama there. We started our session with just some snuggles and laughs. The love between these two is so amazing and you can just feel their energy in the room. Sella will be the first to tell you that she wasn’t sure what life with Autism would bring. She tries to take each day as it comes and to celebrate each accomplishment. Sella credits Mikey’s Autism for making her more patient and understanding and all around, a better mom.
Before our session, Sella told me that Autism is tough – but she and Mikey are tougher. When I asked her what she wants the world to know about Mikey – she told me he is amazing. He might see the world in a different way – but he wants the same things we do: love, friendship and happiness. Every day is a constant worry that someone might hurt Mikey or take advantage of him. She fears what will happen when she passes away. Who will care for him? Will they care for him like she does? Will he be ok? All of these emotions came through as Sella worked with Mikey during the session as she snuggled him and coached him through everything from proper enunciation of his words and re-enforcing the behaviors he has been working on. All parents are teachers, but parents of special needs children have to be the best teachers. Always firm but loving, experts in everything and constantly “on”.
After we finished the casual part of our session, Luisella snuck off to the other room to pick out a dress for our style closet the more formal part of the session. She chose a beautiful, floor-length, navy strapless gown. She walked into the room and the world stopped. At least Mikey’s did. His eyes grew wide and a huge smile grew on his face as he exclaimed, “A PRINCESS! A PRINCESS! We go get married!”. We all cracked up and you could see joyful tears filling Sella’s eyes. Mikey’s love for his mom was sooo clear in that moment. As she stood in front of the backdrop, Mikey wrapped his arms around her waist and connected with my camera so deeply.
I am so blessed that I captured that moment. I gasped. My eyes filled with tears. THAT was the image I had been dreaming about. The image that shows strength, undying love and connection. The image that shows the world that kids with Autism may be different – but they are kids, first and foremost. They aren’t locked in their brain or in another world. They’re intelligent, engaged, loving and caring kids – they just need you to take the time to see the world from their perspective.
That night, all I could think of was that image. I did the quickest edit possible to just share it. As I wrote the caption, it was more a conscious flow of thoughts than anything else. But it was pure, so I’ll share it here again.
Thank you, Sella, for letting me into your world and sharing Mikey with us. I am eternally grateful.