Outside in

A young autistic boy sits quietly while children in the background gaze at him.

A boy on a bench. What do you see?

Even though it’s inaccurate, I love this photo of Colin.

First the accurate part: it captures my son enjoying a brief moment of quiet in a playground, unaware that some children were staring at him.

Now the inaccurate part: the photo suggests exclusion and isolation. It implies that he might be the subject of teasing—or worse. It fits the narrative of autism we’ve come to accept as true. In this case, though, it simply isn’t.

The real story is that Colin never stops moving; he’s a ball of perpetual, joyful energy, and moments like these are rare. Those kids? They actually tried to play with him a few moments before I took the photo, but he just kept on doing his thing. They seemed curious about this boy who didn’t need them; if anything, they were the ones who may have felt excluded.

I took this photo to capture a peaceful moment, but when I looked at it later, what came through was something more melancholy. Why?

Every photographer knows that context is everything. In any image, what’s excluded is as important as what’s included. Timing, angle, framing – each, in its own way, shapes our perception of a moment’s truth. No photograph tells the whole story, and most barely tell an accurate one.

A young autistic boy laughs with joy while sitting on a swing in a playground.

Same day, same boy, different story.

When I look at Colin, I see challenges. Big ones. But mostly I see joy and enthusiasm for the world—his world. I see a boy who loves life with a purity and exuberance I myself have never experienced, not even as a child. I have a choice, then: I can choose to frame his story so that it makes me sad, or so that it makes me happy.

On my better days, I choose the latter.