Decorating With Portraits

This was originally posted as part of Kristen Duke’s Decorating with Portraits series.  I wanted to post it here, too, for those who missed it and because I want to remember/have a record of what I said and how I felt.

When Kristen asked me to post about decorating with portraits I was all:

My 5 year old has Asperger’s.  Because of that, he FREAKS out about pictures and we have literally no family pictures worth displaying from the last 5 years or so.  Any pictures I display are mom taken snapshot type pictures because at least he’s not rolling around on the ground/chewing on his shirt/screaming/giving a thumbs down/hiding behind someone/etc.

So, anything I could contribute would be using non professional quality photos/portraits.

How do you feel about that?

Kristen said:

I think that is an excellent perspective that is completely worthy to share!  This series isn’t just about displaying professional photos, but snapshots, too.  Anything that shows your children they are loved!  I know there are other mothers out there that are experiencing something similar.

I’m going to be super honest with you here…there are many days that Asperger’s kicks my trash.  It’s been a long 5.5 years.  It’s not easy for me to talk about, because I love my kid and I’m emotional and protective.  Plus, HOLY VULNERABILITY when I lay it all out like this.  BUT, Kristen’s right.  There are many, many of us in the autism club, so here I am.

Let me show you a little bit of what I meant in my initial response.  Here’s the last batch of family photos we had taken by my insanely talented friend Leilani.

Coester 1
Note the lack of willingness to make eye contact/look at the camera and him smashing his face up against me.

Coester 8
Oh, hey…how about I look sideways?

Pictures that emphasize Campbell’s problems (that word’s not sitting right with me, but I can’t think of a better one right now) make me sad.  I’ve come home from a photo session and sobbed more than once.  There’s a yearning for “normal” that I can’t put into words.  And there’s a want, maybe even a NEED, to document and display the happy times and not let autism define him.  How would I feel if all the pictures in my home documented my bad temper or my cursing habit? Winking smile

So, if you come to my house, you won’t find any blown up canvas prints or a giant framed photo above the mantel…you’ll find lots and lots of pictures taken by me.  And I’m definitely not a photographer…just a mom that wants to remember the good stuff.

Welcome to my living room.


This display is a whole bunch of cheap-o IKEA frames duct taped together on the back.  You can read more about it here, if you’re interested.  I swap the pictures as often as the mood strikes (because 39 cents for a 5X7 doesn’t exactly persuade me not to).

On the other side of that wall, in my family room, you’ll find this:


I saw the clipboard treatment online several years ago and have been meaning to do my own version.  This post was just the push I needed.  (Details on how I laid out the clipboards here.)


And so, instead of remembering tears and anxiety (me, not the Asperger’s Winking smile), we remember birthdays with our best friends, karate kicks above our heads, football coaches with no kids of their own,  first days of school, stuffed animals can be our best friends, and that smiling will NOT get you off time out any quicker.


Celebrate the ordinary.  Be thankful for those moments.

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  1. I just saw the Woot daily deal- it is a swivel camera. You can take pictures of him with the camera pointed a different direction- so he won’t even know! :)


  2. OOOh, that’s a good idea Anne! Char, I just wanted to say that your family picture looks fine, to tell you the truth, I couldn’t pick out which one was your 5 year old (with the exception of the one your husband’s holding), and that next picture doesn’t look like he’s being uncooperative, it just looks like a professional photo that are so popular these days. What a cute kid! My sister teaches preschool with an abnormally high number of children with aspergers or some form of autism, and my hat goes off to those of you that deal with it on a daily basis. I’m sure you cry alot, but heaven knows there’s a reason you’ve been chosen to be his mom!! -Vanessa

  3. I applaud your honesty in this post. A mother’s love is unconditional, but it doesn’t make the day to day issues any easier. Good for you for not letting this one condition define him.

  4. I’d just like to point out that I very much like the photo of C looking sideways; it looks like it’s supposed to be that way, and he looks so sweet in it – and the family photo with his face smushed into yours just looks like he loves the heck out of his mom! If you hadn’t said anything about Asperger’s, all of us out here in blogland would never have a clue that C wasn’t just another ordinary boy (please don’t be offended by that term – I wasn’t sure how to say that any other way!)! And as for all your ‘mom’ shots – I love them. We get family portaits done every November, in time for Christmas – and not one of those portraits has made it up on a wall (my husband gets bent out of shape if I put holes in the wall, and insists he be the one to do so – but then is never home long enough to get it done!)…. so I guess my point is, it doesn’t matter who takes the photos – all that really matters is you use and enjoy them!!

  5. Char,
    I love hearing your perspective. I can relate with wanting ‘normal’. Thank you for sharing and trusting us with your vulnerability. I love your pictures and how you displayed them (and the turquoise piano)!!

    ♥ april

  6. I LOVVVEEE the photos. Your family looks beautiful.
    I actually wanted to know if you had a post about the painted piano? I tried to look and didnt see it. I am getting an old piano from a friend and would love to paint it white or black or some fun color like orange!!

    thanks so much

  7. I LOVE these pics and how you have made the best.
    I SO wanted “normal” wedding pics. However, with a 23 year old sister with aspergers, I knew it wasn’t going to happen. So I just had a loooong talk with my photographer about how to let her do her thing, and not to “force” her into any pose and even if she wasn’t in some family pics or some bridal party pics, that was OK.
    You know what? I got some of the best wedding pictures ever! At one point, Erin started throwing up some “thumbs up,” and “jazz hands,” moves out of no where, so the photographer told the whole birdal party to do it, and it was GREAT!!! I used that shot in my Thank you cards!!
    I’m going to post some of these this week on the blog since out anniversary is next week, just because they were so funny, thanks for reminding me!

  8. Both of my sons have autism, and I’ve decided that screw it, we’re going to enjoy the nuttiness of it. Yeah, neither of my sons, now 19 and 20, use the bathroom properly or neatly or anything like that, but tough s**t. Get it? Tough s**t? So what that I’ll never have the job of my dreams because dual core Rainmen live here? So what that they’ll never work “normally”? They are still God’s children, even tho God totally buggered up on them. But go on over to my blog and read about my son who is an Eagle Scout. Or my other son, who is a train nut. But look again…. somewhere along the line, they started looking at cameras, they started smiling. One of them even tells jokes! (okay, they’re dirty jokes, but I’m not all that picky.)

    But I must say, I still yearn for the day when they both say, “I love you, Mom.” I’m still waiting.

  9. WOW! You are brave to “put it out there”. I love your photo wall and I love your statement about remember the good things. I have an ADHD child and I find myself using the word “deficit” to describe some of the challenges they have with him. When did the school system decide that they had to have all round pegs to go into their stupid little round holes? Sorry about the vent. Anyways – love your blog & read thru feeds everytime you update. Thx for sharing.

  10. My 4 year old has ASD. and I applaud you for talking so openly about it. {I do as well on my blog} Raising awareness of “the spectrum” and as importantly, as mothers, our range of feelings about it.

    I love more “photojournalism” than “portraits” because they just feel more artsy to me. My son Moose’s first school pictures are hilarious. He’s looking out of the corner of his eye with a huge smirk on his face. Do I love the picture? Nope. I love the ones that I’ve taken with my iphone in the yard, at the pumpkin patch, at the pool, beach, etc. Yup.

    Those are the keepers…

  11. Amanda Gaskin says:

    I have a son with autism. Every decent photo I have of him is taken from the side or is completely, utterly candid I(which means I have taken it). He is a strikingly handsome child but no professional photographer has ever captured that. If he knows you are trying to take a photo, he scrunches up his face in this attempt to do what he knows I want him to, SMILE! . It breaks my heart. We do a yearly Christmas photo and every year, I end up taking the best of the worst if you know what I mean. I know exactly how you feel. We all want the perfect portrait. The one that shows how beautiful, inside and out, our child truly is. I think you have that whether your child looks directly at the camera or not. I love your blog, your wonderful photos of your family (which is not too different from mine–not picture perfect but everyone loving each other and doing the best that they can), and all your crafts. Thank you for sharing it all with us. You are a great mom!

  12. I LOVE your portrait wall! I have 2 sons with Asperger’s so I feel your frustration. But the pics you have show how much you love him! He is a part of a family! Our pics are not so wonderful either, but that’s how our family and friends see us all of the time. Celebrate the uniqueness of your family and know that we are here cheering you on.

  13. Char. I just want to hug you. Thanks for being open and honest and inspiring. I don’t have a child who has aspergers but I have just plain crazy kids. And they bounce around like bouncy balls when we do things like family portraits. That’s why I made our family picture last year a jumping one. Yes, the family picture every one got in their Christmas card is of us jumping. Ha ha…I love it. While the boys are young, I figure we’re just going to have to go with what they can handle for now.

    I so want a wall of just the memories like you created. I think your post has been the most inspiring out of all the guest posts of this series for me. Those are the pictures that evoke the genuine emotion that I want to remember…not the posed forced smiles {although those can be a funny memory in and of itself}.

  14. Joni Walton says:

    I love how this post is so helpful in terms of cute ideas and so honest and sweet in terms of your “struggles”. You are such a wonderful Mom. I mean it. And, I miss you. :) And, Joseph was just saking about Bryan the other day. We need dinner at Sampan.

  15. I love what you did & I have been trying to think of a different & cheap way to do this & now I have it!!! Thanks so much!!

    I have a 16 yr old son w/Autism. We are still trying to figure out on the spectrum where he falls but she feels it is worse than Aspergers! Ugh! You are not alone & I have been dealing with his Autism/Bipolar since he was 2. I have been a single mom since he was 4 & have 3 others than him. (He is the youngest.) It is a never ending, unpredictable, sometimes happy & sometimes sad waves we go through but in the end & no matter what, I would love him anyway he was sent to me!

  16. I agree with Stephanie, if you hadn’t told what was “wrong” with the picture(in your opinion), I would’ve never noticed anything. He’s an adorable little boy! The one of him looking sideways is just precious and a true smile was captured on his face.

  17. All your photos look wonderful! I love the way you’ve displayed them. You are doing a wonderful job capturing the true moments of your children’s lives. It can be nice to have professional photos taken, but when you look back at all the pictures over the years, it’s the every-day shots that bring back the most memories & tell the best stories.

    Stay strong & keep up the great work!!

  18. I was a Special Behavior Aide for 9 yrs. The last 3, I was exclusively with a 7 yr old moderatly autistic girl. One of her “challenges” was picture day, which our school had twice a year. The last time I took her, dreading the explosion, she sat when asked, posed, and smiled at the camera!!! It was BEAUTIFUL!!! I still have the picture. My point is keep trying! You never know when you will be able to finally get that precious picture and it will be sooooooo worth it!

  19. I agree with Stephanie and Cokette.

    I love the pictures you’ve taken. I think they’re much more fun and interesting than the “posed” ones. I wonder if some time your son would have fun taking pictures with an inexpensive camera while you (or someone else) takes pictures with another camera? Or planning an informal photo shoot around an activity that your son absolutely loves? (just thoughts for the future)

  20. Char @ Crap I've Made says:

    I agree that our professional photographs are beautiful and that my friend Leilani did an amazing job. It’s just that I see the Asperger’s. And I see the anxiety on his face. And I know how hard the picture experience was for him. I don’t want him to be reminded of that. I want him to be reminded of how awesome he is at karate. And of times he felt happy.

  21. I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE the idea of using clipboards as frames!!!!! Super cute!!!! I also wanted to tell you that while professional photos are nice, I think you learn the true personality of a person in candid photos. I think all of your children are adorable and they all look very healthy and happy to me! Keep up the good work, mom!

  22. I also have a son with aspergers. I have learned to accept the fact that we will never have the cute family photos. However, I have lots of snapshots displaying my son’s funny sense of humor such as being attacked by a stuffed shark. It was great to see your vulnerability. We need more of that because that’s what people really want. Thanks.

  23. I normally don’t comment on sites I view, but my heart goes out to you. My son who is 12 has aspergers or high functioning autism, (depends on who is defining it). We didn’t realize what it was until he was in about the 4th grade. Pictures can definitely be a sensitive matter whether it’s what he has to wear or being to close to someone who might touch him. Then it’s the forced awkward smile that always comes out. Anyhow, I am going to attempt to do family pictures tomorrow and have been trying to prep him so that it is not a traumatic experience. Thanks for your wonderful post. If you would like to talk more about these kind of struggles, you can contact me anytime.

  24. Thanks for sharing such a personal part of your life. I like the others who have commented would have never known. I love the side portrait of him. You’re candid shots are wonderful and the clipboard wall is an awesome idea. And from the comments above you’re not alone. God Bless you and the others who have found the strength, perserverance, love and patience for I know at times must be a high demanding life.

  25. Char,

    I’m a long time reader, but not so great about commenting. (So sorry, I’m always reading though!) I’m a little late to the game here, but I wanted to chime in, too. My daughter “Lilly” is 13.5 and also has Asperger’s (along with lots of other fun stuff that makes everyone want to pull their hair out – except me?)
    Your post reminded me of when I took Lil to her first professional photo session – when she was 12 months old and (I didn’t know she was autistic) she just BAWLED. We snapped pics with me dabbing tears in between the shots. She was so stinking stressed out. When people see those photos now they always say something about the “amazing expressive” look on her face – fact is she was in between sobs and when *I* look at those pictures I only see the pain she was experiencing.

    There are so many things Lilly *can* do, like you with your son, I refuse to focus on the things she cannot do. She’s not photogenic, that’s true, but she’s endearing and beautiful off camera. On a daily basis I say to my (wonderfully supportive) girlfriends how I long for another Mom who I can ask “What do you do to keep your kid from squirting toothpaste on the mirror every morning?” It’s good to some of the other Moms out there.
    xo, Angie Pangie

  26. Char… I am sorry for your heartache and the amount of effort seemingly small things require of you. We did get a few good shots that day but I know it didn’t go as smoothly as you’d hoped. (You forgot to mention how blasted cold it was that day… crazy Utah weather.) But I agree, do not give up and just capture him in his element for now. And next time I am in Utah we’re going to give it another go! My treat. :)

  27. I love your picture frames. LOVE love LOVE! And I love how much you love your kid. I honestly think that every day moments are one thousand times better than fancy studio pictures any way. Real is beautiful.

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