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How Photography Bridged the Autism Gap Between Father and Son

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It started in 2007, when Archibald began to notice that there was something different about his son. At the time, Eli had not been diagnosed with autism. There were tantrums and odd fascinations with household objects, strange behaviors and failures to communicate. Raising a child is difficult, but this was something else. A commercial photographer, Archibald adapted by doing what he did best. He took photos.

“I was a new dad raising a kid who I didn’t know what the deal was with, and we started making the pictures together,” he says.

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Archibald refers to this work as a collaboration. It belongs to his son just as much as it belongs to him. Though the photos appear natural, they were born of short sessions in which Archibald would explore one of Eli’s predilections du jour.

One of the more jarring images in the book depicts Eli, small and naked, curled up inside of a plastic box. This was Eli’s idea. Many times after Archibald would make a photo of Eli, it was Eli’s turn to make a photo of him. Through photography, father and son were able to understand one another in a way they hadn’t before.

Archibald and Eli continued to make images together until 2010, when they published Echolilia. Responses to the work were swift and intense.

“When the book came out, it was almost like in the media, Eli became Mr. Autism. Suddenly a project that wasn’t supposed to be about autism becameautism.”

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The two did interviews together and traveled with the work doing presentations. There was an early lecture where Archibald never even said the word “autism.” He said he didn’t want to admit it to himself. His view quickly changed. He wanted to instill in Eli that its not a handicap, it’s nothing to be ashamed of.

“With all the bravado of an autistic kid who doesn’t think twice what people think about him, he can get in front of 400 people and not blink an eye,” Archibald says, describing how Eli would respond to his newfound audiences.

While there were some negative reactions to the project, most of the feedback, especially from parents of autistic children, was overwhelmingly postitive. Parents often sent him photos of their children in similar situations as Eli.

“I just did what parents of autistic kids all over the world were doing, I just had a nicer camera and a little more intention.”

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Eli is now 13, and the project is long over.

“I don’t feel like there’s anything to discover anymore. He’s a teenager who expresses himself very well,” Archibald said. “We answered all of the questions we wanted to answer.”

Eli loves computers, Minecraft and satirical songs. He hates art. At one point he got into photography, much like any son wants to emulate his father, but he’s very much his own person now. He looks back at Echolilia as something he did when he was little. Some kids go fishing with their dads, and some kids make critically acclaimed photo projects.

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My name is Kristi Culpepper, I have 10 years of experience working with youth agencies. I have a bachelor’s degree in outdoor education. I raise money, train leaders, and organize units. I have raised over $100,000 each of the last six years. I consider myself a good public speaker, and I have a good sense of humor.

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