This year, Philip made Christmas presents for the family by writing poems or letters for them. For my Dad, Philip wrote a sweet note in which he appreciated my Dad’s pictures. He wrote:
I am touring places with you when I see your pictures. I like them a lot. I am interested in photography. I want to accompany you on your shoots.
On Christmas Eve, we had dinner with extended family and family friends at my parents’ house. After dinner, my Dad showed some of us his pictures he took on trips to Brazil and Thailand. He was trying to figure out which ones to enter into a competition and what he should name them. My Dad picked out this photo he took in Thailand as a possible entry. He asked Philip, "What do you think I should name it?" I held up the letterboard for Philip as he spelled,
"Catching Light Opulence"
We all sat in shocked silence for awhile. For me, my thoughts were a combination of "Wow, that title really makes you think about the picture" and "How did my 10 year old son come up with that!? How does he even know what opulence means?"
My Dad was blown away. He loved the title and decided that should indeed be its name. My Dad was now having fun with Philip and decided to ask him to title some other pictures. More and more of our family came to join in and see what all the hubbub was about. Dad would ask everyone what to title each picture. Most of our suggestions were pretty mundane: monkey on a branch or lunchtime. Philip continued to come up with the best titles.
"I Am King"
"A Fruitful Day"
"Each Vine is Alive"
For the last picture, my Dad asked Philip why he didn't mention the monkey. Philip spelled, "The monkey's tail is being camouflaged by the vines."
My Mom was impressed with what she was witnessing. She asked me, "Aren't autistic people supposed to be unable to generalize concepts? They said if they show someone with autism a picture, they focus only on one aspect, such as the doorknob of a door and not the whole picture. Philip sees the whole picture and more than any of us too."
It certainly does seem we are all learning a lot of things about Philip that are contrary to the book or "what he is supposed to be." I think of the last picture above as being an illustration of the individual being camouflaged by autism. What we readily see are the symptoms of autism: flapping hands, jumping legs, unfocused eyes, and a mouth that does not utter intelligible ideas. It all too easily masks the sharp mind, the keen eye, the gentle heart, and the unique personality of each very much alive human being. It is about time we focus on the human being and treat autistic individuals as individuals, not autism.
On that note, I leave you with an extra treat about Forrest Sargent, a 22 year old non-speaking autistic photographer who also communicates via RPM on a letterboard. I want you the reader to know there are many autistic individuals, even non-speaking ones, living meaningful and satisfying lives. But I also want you to know that for each person like Philip and Forrest, many more non-speaking autistics have not yet been given this opportunity. They desperately need our help to bring effective communication into their lives. It makes a world of difference. Click here to read Forrest's inspiring story from frustrating silence to liberating self-expression through RPM and photography in Seattle's Quirksee magazine.