My son doesn’t smile for photos

By Debbie Urbanski
@DebbieUrbanski

From the beginning, my son wasn’t much of a smiler. We could never get him to do it on command. By the time he was one, Jasper looked either anxious or furious most days. Relatives, nurses, friends and strangers would try to get him to crack a grin, as if a serious baby was a danger, an affront to the definition of a child. “What does that little guy have to be so worried about?” a homeless man once asked while we were out walking a new city.

At two, we took him to a photographer’s studio; I thought that’s what parents were suppose to do—get professional pictures taken of their children to hand out to family members. Though the light in the studio was perfect that afternoon, and my son appeared to be glowing, I had trouble picking out pictures I thought my parents or anyone else would understand. Jasper appeared worried in all of them, his eyes looking away rather than into the lens of the camera. 

He used to cry a lot back then. To calm himself, he’d study things like the rotating blades of fans or wires coming out of the walls. Looking back, I think he was trying to make sense of the world, a place into which he struggled to fit. At seven, after years of frustration and bewilderment, he was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Though his autism is not always visible, it is always there.

Now at nine, Jasper still doesn’t smile for photographs. Often, he refuses to be in pictures at all. And while, for some reason, this bothers a lot of people, I’ve learned to accept it. 

“C’mon, smile,” is a common request. And one to which most kids might respond by turning on their picture smiles, the ones they’ve been trained since birth to master. But my son doesn’t have that kind of cute forced grin. 

It’s caused some conflict during group outings, when my friends’ children pile onto picnic tables and look adorable, ready for a photo op. Everyone shouts for Jasper to get in the picture too, but he doesn’t come. For our annual family reunion, my mom’s dream is to gather all of her grinning grandchildren around her for a picture. Jasper’s refusal to smile, or worse yet to be present in the picture at all, is seen as a refusal of love and also, I suppose, ineffective parenting on my part.

“Get in the picture,” I used to tell my son.

“No,” he’d shout back.

“Get in the picture now!” Embarrassed, frustrated, and confused, I was always aware that people were watching.

“No.”

By the time my son was diagnosed with autism I had given up trying to force him to pose for pictures. In part because I was tired. Demanding that my child act like other kids was exhausting, for both of us. At the same time, I was beginning to understand how being a parent meant helping my son be himself in the world. It meant supporting the particular choices he needed to make, even if those weren’t the choices of most other kids.

Not too long ago, we bought Jasper a camera. At group gatherings he’s become our unofficial photographer. Nobody tells the photographer to smile. Have you noticed that? Likewise, no one stares at the actual person behind the camera. Everyone is too busy staring into the lens.

When he’s taking photos, Jasper doesn’t count down from three. He doesn’t say, “Cheese!” or try to aim the camera from a flattering angle. He takes the picture when he wants to. Often we end up looking unprepared, or should I say: real. 

I love the family photos my son takes. 

And when he takes pictures of his classmates, or of his sister, and shares them with me, I feel like I’m eavesdropping on a private exchange. The expressions on the other children’s faces feel so sincere and secret. I’ve never heard him tell anyone to smile when he’s about to take a picture.      

Jasper brings his camera along on outings when he can. I think he likes the world better when he looks at it through a viewfinder, framing the setting, taking in only as much as he wants, zooming in, zooming in some more. Lately he’s been editing out all the color of the photos he takes, turning a bright summer scene into something that’s dark, moody, mysterious, but also beautiful in its own way. Maybe this is how he sees the world. Or maybe this is how he wishes the world would be.

Debbie Urbanski is a writer and mom who once had a bad habit of reading parenting books but has since quit. Last year, one of Jasper’s photographs was accepted, out of hundreds of entries, by the local art museum for a community show. He was the only child in the exhibit. It was a proud moment. You can find Debbie online at debbieurbanski.com.

Photo, courtesy of Jasper

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