Photographer, mom presents faces of autism

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Photographer Tera Girardin, whose new book is called “Faces of Autism,” is pictured with son Alex. (Submitted photo)

Book will be released in April

As Tera Girardin discovered, a child’s autism diagnosis is a sobering life event that comes with a heavy reading list.

The theories, the therapies, the reams of parenting advice can be overwhelming, said Girardin, whose 12-year-old son Alex was diagnosed when he was 3.

A photographer by trade, she found useful knowledge but little magic in the literature, especially the photos. In response, Girardin is offering her take on autistic kids — a book of portraits, in photos and text, called “Faces of Autism.”

The Lakeville resident will hold a book-release event on April 2, World Autism Day, from 1-3 p.m. at Christina Huddleston Elementary in Lakeville. The book spotlights 31 children, including Alex, and includes written contributions from the parents.

“There’s not a lot of opportunity to talk about your kiddo in positive terms,” said Girardin, a single mother of three boys. “As autism parents sitting in IEP meetings and evaluation meetings and medical appointments, you’re constantly focusing on how do we manage the difficulties of autism and the challenges. But it’s very rare that somebody says, ‘Tell me about your kid and what makes them unique and amazing.’ And when you do, they start to pour out their stories.”

A self-taught photographer with a prior career in marketing, Girardin launched her family and professional portrait business a dozen years ago. Working strictly with natural light, she bases her business out of a window-filled studio at the 190 River Ridge Building in Burnsville.

When Alex was younger she brought him to Partners in Excellence, a private autism treatment center with a Burnsville location. Impressed with the center and charmed by the children’s faces she saw every day, Girardin longed to get a camera on them.

The opportunity came in the form of a calender produced by a nonprofit associated with Partners in Excellence. When that project ended after three years, Girardin wasn’t finished.

“I just needed to do something with my photography business that meant something to me and could make an impact in a bigger way,” she said.

Girardin reached out to Partners in Excellence parents whose children she had photographed for the calendar and other parents in the Twin Cities autism community. She posted an application on her website for parents interested in joining a book project.

She said she spent a year shooting and another year writing and crafting the book, which is self-published through Wise Ink Creative. A Kickstarter campaign launched last December brought in almost $15,000 she said.

The book is full of smiles and color.

“I wanted to come to their homes or park or wherever the kid felt comfortable,” Girardin said. “In a few cases we did come to the studio just because of weather, but I really wanted it to be in their natural environment to photograph who they are and what lights them up.”

Each child gets a two-page spread with multiple photos and text that mixes some of her observations from the photo sessions with submissions from the parents.

“On each kiddo there’s a section called ‘Words of Wisdom,’ and that comes straight from the parents,” Girardin said.

Her subjects cover a range of the autism and personality spectrums.

“Some of them are nonverbal,” she said. “Some of them are really dependent on others. And some of them are wise beyond their years,” including a boy who “makes some strange noises” while trying to talk.

“But his parents have worked with him to develop a communication tool with him on their iPad,” Girardin said. “And he writes the most amazing, philosophical poetry that no 9- or 10-year-old should have a concept of. And it just pours out of him.”

Her own son, who attends McGuire Middle School in Lakeville, is verbal and social, “higher-functioning” and “self-sufficient,” Girardin said. He recognizes he has a slightly slower “operating system” than others and likens it to the family’s old Chromebook, Mom said.

“But he views it as a superpower, too,” she added, pointing to Alex’s “really big heart” and empathy, which she said defy stereotypes of autistic people as cold and unfeeling.

“I think it’s actually the opposite, that they feel things super-intensely, whether it’s emotions or physical things or sound — everything’s kind of intense for these kids,” Girardin said. “And for Alex, it happens to be emotional stuff. … I’ve brought him out of movies just sobbing because he felt so compassionately about the characters. And it’s sweet — it’s a good trait.”

“Faces of Autism” will be available in hardcover on Amazon and through facesofautismbook.com.