Sunday, July 25, 2010

Washington state photographer tells stories of autism through her pictures

From The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash.:

The black-and-white images revealed a lighthearted 8-year-old with intense dark eyes and shoulder-length hair, grinning from ear to ear as she swung a feather boa.

“It was amazing to see the smile and the brightness in her eyes,” said Kristy Brazelton, recalling how she cried the first time she saw the photographs of her daughter.

“We saw a glimpse of who Natalie really is. We don’t have very many pictures that show her full of life and joy.”

Natalie, who was diagnosed two years ago with Asperger’s, an autism disorder, doesn’t like to sit still for photos, her mother explained. And when she does, she usually appears guarded or anxious. Often, she has a blank look in her eyes.

That certainly wasn’t the case when she spent an afternoon with Ashley Potter (pictured), a local photographer who created “Faces of Hope,” an annual calendar and photo exhibit that features children who have been diagnosed with Asperger’s and other autism spectrum disorders.

For the first time in as long as her mother could remember, Natalie was able to relax and be herself in front of a camera.

For the last two years, Potter’s photographs have graced galleries and other public places throughout Washington and Idaho to increase awareness of autism, to tell the stories of children struggling with this disorder and the importance of nurturing their growth development.

“Faces of Hope” is also a project of the ISAAC Foundation, a Spokane nonprofit that provides financial assistance to families who struggle to pay for the therapy interventions needed to treat their children with an autism spectrum disorder.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in 110 children in the United States has an autism spectrum disorder, which causes significant social, communication and behavioral challenges.

Most parents who have a son or daughter with autism are often overwhelmed with their efforts to help their children communicate and minimize disruptive behavior that they never get around to enjoying the simple pleasures of parenting such as taking photographs, said Brazelton.

In addition to her work as a photographer, Potter is a pediatric speech therapist who has nurtured relationships with autistic children for the past 13 years. Her experience with these children, who are often misunderstood, compelled her to depict them in a different light.

Potter also wanted to honor the work of the ISAAC Foundation – established in 2007 by Reed and Holly Lytle, parents of Isaac Dennis Lytle. When Isaac was 18 months old, he was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. His parents’ “greatest joy,” according to the foundation’s website, was witnessing their child “overcome obstacle after obstacle due to the early intervention services they struggled to financially provide him.”

Isaac died of an unrelated heart defect in 2007 at age 3.

According to medical experts, children with autism need at least 20 to 30 hours a week of therapy including speech, occupational, physical, behavioral and relationship development interventions. Most of these therapies, which can range between $30,000 to $80,000 annually, are not covered by insurance policies, families say.

That’s where the ISAAC Foundation comes in. (In addition to honoring Isaac’s memory, the acronym stands for Intervention Services Assistance for Autistic Children.) In the past three years, the foundation has awarded more than 72 grants totaling $121,601 to more than 50 children in Spokane, Whitman, Kootenai, Stevens and Lincoln counties.

Natalie, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s shortly before turning 7, is a recipient of an ISAAC Foundation grant. Her parents were so grateful to the nonprofit that they decided to help by asking Natalie to take part in the Faces of Hope exhibit.

When the Brazeltons met Potter for the first time, Natalie was nervous and didn’t know what to expect, Kristy Brazelton recalled. But surprisingly, the little girl quickly relaxed as Potter asked questions and presented her with a box of dress-up clothes.

At school and other places, Natalie has a tendency to set herself apart from other people and has trouble with transitions, her mom explained. When there’s a change in routine, she reacts by having a meltdown.

In Potter’s presence, however, the little girl was able to calm down, Brazelton said. Despite the fact she had a camera, Potter “was able to draw Natalie out,” she said. “It was really amazing, the life she got in those pictures. It was such a meaningful experience.”

Since Natalie’s diagnosis, Brazelton and her husband have worked opposite shifts – she’s at the office during the day while he works at night – so they can care for their daughter and their two other children, ages 12 and 3. After attending a local public school for three years, Natalie, now 9, will be homeschooled this fall.

Despite all the challenges in their lives, Natalie and the other children included in the 2010 exhibit look like typical kids, said Brazelton.

“You fall in love with them,” she said. “They’re not damaged kids. They’re just different. These children are so beautiful – physically and emotionally.”

Since she first started the Faces of Hope project, Potter said she has been inspired by the stories of these children and their families. The parents were always so grateful for the eye-opening images of their sons or daughters, she said.

Like Brazelton, many talk about how difficult it was to take photographs of their children.

“My hope was to leave each photo shoot having captured a smile, a giggle or a twinkle in their eye,” Potter said. “I had a wonderful experience with each of these children and many of them taught me to be patient, to be present and to not be rushed.”

Potter, who has two young daughters, first became aware of her calling to work with autistic children about 13 years ago during her undergraduate years at the University of Washington.

At that time, she was providing respite care for a family with a child diagnosed with autism. When she moved to Spokane to earn her master’s in speech pathology, she knew she wanted to specialize in treating children on the spectrum.

“No two are alike,” she said. “There’s something so intriguing, so captivating about each one.”

As a therapist for Milestones Pediatric Speech and Language, Potter’s goal is to help each child and their family find strategies to help them be successful at school and to deal with the challenging behaviors that come with the disorder.

“I’m constantly reminding parents, whatever the behavior is, you have to see it as an attempt to communicate.”

As a photographer, she often uses the same strategies to reach out to the kids and to help them feel at ease in front of the camera.

“Each child featured in this calendar has a story to tell,” she wrote in the introduction to the 2010 calendar, “and I hope that as you see their picture, you will also their ‘face of hope.’ ”