The Strong Women Series: Motherhood & Autism | Jessica and Camden

TRIGGER WARNING: This article involves child loss.

These sessions have taken much longer than I anticipate to photograph and blog.  But it’s not because I’m too busy or I don’t want to.  It’s because they are so deeply emotional…. It’s a lot.  With each one of these mamas stories, I relive my own.  It gives me comfort that I am not alone … but also makes me mourn for just how many moms are living the same life.

 I’d like to introduce you to Jessica.  What struck me most about Jessica when she entered the studio was just how happy and joyous she was.  I remember going through our own Autism diagnosis and I really worried I would never feel happiness or joy again.  And yet here was Jessica, who walked in six months pregnant and just glowed and radiated joy.  Which is even more remarkable given her story.    

maryland autism photographer

 You see, Jessica was pregnant (she has since given birth to her beautiful daughter, Ellia) and had her son, Camden, in the studio.  But in between Camden and Ellia is her daughter Kennady, who passed a little over a year ago from neuroblastoma.  I will forever admire the strength and courage that Jessica showed just in her ability to tell her story.  Her bravery in welcoming another baby into the world is incredible.  You can learn more about Kennady and her journey with neuroblastoma by following her on Instagram.  But I will do my best to share it here, as well.

maryland special needs photographer

Jessica was only 23 years old when her son, Camden, then 18 months, was diagnosed with Autism.  At diagnosis, Camden was aggressive and would slam his head onto any surface of flooring when he was upset, uncomfortable, or in any public situation.  He lost all speech and became completely non-verbal.

 The diagnosis turned her life upside down.  She had just given birth to Kennady.  Jessica shared, “I remember being freshly a new mom of two, being told he was Autistic and just cried because I didn’t know how it would affect us”.  They didn’t know anyone else who had children on the Autism Spectrum, and she just felt very alone and isolated, as if she and Camden just didn’t fit in the world.  Not wanting to give up, Jessica put him in every program/therapy she could get him into. 

Baltimore Autism Photographer
Photographer for Autistic Kids

Jessica shared, “I knew my son was worth much more … so I fought hard for him to have a productive and happy life, in case there ever came a time where he had to go on without me. I suffered badly with anxiety and still do in moments of how he will be as an adult, which is much different than what parents have to stress about with “typical” children. Everyday is a new “what if” or struggle but sometimes all we can do is look back on the progress we’ve already made and put all the faith into them and know that they are strong and capable and will do big things regardless of a diagnosis.”

Fortunately for Jessica, early intervention was very effective and helped Camden tremendously.  Now Camden is very sweet and loving.  He has found his voice again and has been Jessica’s “rock” through Kennady’s illness and passing. 

Special Needs Family Photographer

I asked Jessica what she wanted the world to know about Camden and about her journey as his mom.  She simply stated that Camden is different, but he’s not less.  They struggle with his “invisible disability” – or in other words, a disability that isn’t immediately evident to those around him.  They often hear he doesn’t “look autistic” – which by the way, if you don’t know, this is on the list of “never say this to an Autism parent” phrases.  Still, she encourages everyone to slow down and take time to get to know him.  If you look past the quirks and you will find a child who is extremely smart, loving and funny.  He wants what we all want:  to be loved and accepted by those around him.  She no longer fears being a mom to a child with a disability. She knows she can handle anything this life brings her.

“I do worry immensely about his future and what it holds. I’m scared there will be a day I won’t be able to stand up for him or fight for him to have the help and support he needs and deserves. I’m also scared he will be abused, bullied or neglected by people who don’t care to understand his differences.”

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Ok.  So here is where I need to take a pause.  Because this next statement … brings me to tears every time I read it.  If there is one thing Jessica wants you to know about Camden, it’s that he is one of the strongest kids she knows. 

“Camden not only has had to deal with the struggles with his delayed development but he also has had to become a bereaved sibling in the past year to his very best friend. The only child we all saw a genuine connection with. Everyday he has to battle everyday with social frustrations as well as going through the unimaginable. He’s my hero.”

Photographer for kids with Autism
Baltimore Autism Family Photographer

So I’m sure you’re anything like me, you’re probably on the verge of tears and just feeling so deeply for Jessica and her family.  But for as challenging as her recent years have been, she’ll tell you she is a survivor.  “… my life isn’t over, will never be over because of an Autism diagnosis and that if anything it has drastically changed my life and has helped me view everything from a much more empathetic and loving lens”. 

maryland fine art maternity photographer
Baltimore Maternity Photographer

She credits Camden’s Autism for helping her become much more patient, much more empathetic and much more loving as a whole. She sees and understands things from a deeper perspective and credits Camden for that. This in turn has allowed her to help and support other parents who are just beginning their journey with an Autism diagnosis. 

Baltimore Pregnancy Pictures

Ok.  Whew.  I did it.  It might not be as coherent as I wanted …. But let me tell you, this took a lot for me to get through.  I have the most amazing respect and admiration for Jessica and her family.  They’re incredible.  Camden was just the sweetest boy during our session and I’m hopeful to see them again.    

P.S. If you’ve submitted an application to be in this series - I haven’t forgotten about you. I am committed to photographing as many moms as i can - I am just working through scheduling now.

The Strong Women Series: Motherhood & Autism | Luisella and Mikey

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. 

Baltimore Autism Mom

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.

Autism Mom

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. 

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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.

Today I finally kicked off my Autism mom portrait series. 6 weeks late thanks to constant bad weather and a case of the flu. But late is better than never.
These mamas are my tribe. Many I’ve never met before today - but they GET me. They understand my life and my child. They understand the beauty and the pain that comes with every day. They were the first to circle around us when Cooper was delayed and then diagnosed. They held us up and walked for us when we were unable to walk on our own. They taught us the law and joined us in meetings to make sure we never fought alone. They took charge so nothing ever missed a beat.
Because the thing is - when you have a child with serious disabilities, you can’t miss a beat. Missing a beat means 6-12 more months before a diagnosis or for therapies to begin. Missing a beat means a child denied something they’re legally entitled to and need to thrive. Missing a beat means a child with no personal sense of danger gets out and away and possibly doesn’t come back.
These mamas are my tribe. They understand what it means to not be able to be tired. Or sick. They know what it means to never be able to die.
We give every last ounce of ourselves to give our children even that 1% chance that they may be able to live on their own. Hold a job. Find love.
We sacrifice every other part of our lives because it means that much to us.
Don’t cross us. We may not always agree but we always have each other’s back. Because everything we do is out of deep, undying love for our kids.
This series is my love song to women I have never met before today but already know on a deep, personal level.

Thank you, Sella, for letting me into your world and sharing Mikey with us. I am eternally grateful.

Want to be a part of this? Apply here