Artists with autism see the world through a different lens

"I push my limits to see what I am truly capable of.”

Photo Credit: Michelle Hamstra

Artists with autism see the world through a different lens

Written by: Lesly Bailey
March 12, 2018


“Snow falling on branches.”

“Growing waves crashing on the shore at a beach.”

“A carefree robin in my yard not caring about anything in the world.”

Travel and event photographer Christopher Casson of Valparaiso captures the minutiae of the everyday through his camera lens and unique perspective as an autistic creative. “These are moments that tend to be overlooked by most who are going about their daily routine,” says Casson, who has Asperger’s syndrome, which is on the autism spectrum. “A wildflower growing on the side of a building—people drive by this, but when I look up with my camera, it’s such an amazing and awe-inspiring photo.

 

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT

“Snow falling on branches.”

“Growing waves crashing on the shore at a beach.”

“A carefree robin in my yard not caring about anything in the world.”

Travel and event photographer Christopher Casson of Valparaiso captures the minutiae of the everyday through his camera lens and unique perspective as an autistic creative. “These are moments that tend to be overlooked by most who are going about their daily routine,” says Casson, who has Asperger’s syndrome, which is on the autism spectrum. “A wildflower growing on the side of a building—people drive by this, but when I look up with my camera, it’s such an amazing and awe-inspiring photo.

 

“These small moments are missed for a variety of reasons. I want to show these viewpoints that are around us. They’re simplistic like when we were kids, but are gone as we grow older.”

For Casson, photography serves as an avenue to self-expression and as a way to break through people’s expectations of a condition that can manifest in social and communication challenges as well as one-of-a-kind strengths and differences. He says, “I always feel like this is like a second way for me to communicate in a way . . . you know that saying, ‘A picture is worth a thousand words’?”

Casson cultivates calmness through his camera while crashing out of his comfort zone by taking on new experiences such as speaking at the 2017 Insight Conference at Valparaiso University and being interviewed for this article. “It’s important for me to be around stressful situations,” he says. “It’s best for me to learn.”

He adds that photography gives him the chance to explore and learn more about the world when he travels. “It gives me a sense of peace and serenity, being out in nature and taking pictures,” he says. “Being able to travel and explore and take photos along with that—the peace I feel—just me and the camera in nature enjoying the moment and different events. I push my limits to see what I am truly capable of.”

Now 32, Casson originally was going to college to be a video game designer and animator focusing on adventure games when his cycling trips took him in a different direction. “Nature is what got me started. Cycling along county roads taking shots with my smartphone, I was growing to love it more,” he says. “I posted on Instagram trying to get hits and decided to do it for a living.”

 

Photo Credit: Colbee Lynn Photography
Christopher Casson is a photographer from Valparaiso.
Photo Credit: Colbee Lynn Photography
Christopher Casson is a photographer from Valparaiso.

“These small moments are missed for a variety of reasons. I want to show these viewpoints that are around us. They’re simplistic like when we were kids, but are gone as we grow older.”

For Casson, photography serves as an avenue to self-expression and as a way to break through people’s expectations of a condition that can manifest in social and communication challenges as well as one-of-a-kind strengths and differences. He says, “I always feel like this is like a second way for me to communicate in a way . . . you know that saying, ‘A picture is worth a thousand words’?”

Casson cultivates calmness through his camera while crashing out of his comfort zone by taking on new experiences such as speaking at the 2017 Insight Conference at Valparaiso University and being interviewed for this article. “It’s important for me to be around stressful situations,” he says. “It’s best for me to learn.”

He adds that photography gives him the chance to explore and learn more about the world when he travels. “It gives me a sense of peace and serenity, being out in nature and taking pictures,” he says. “Being able to travel and explore and take photos along with that—the peace I feel—just me and the camera in nature enjoying the moment and different events. I push my limits to see what I am truly capable of.”

Now 32, Casson originally was going to college to be a video game designer and animator focusing on adventure games when his cycling trips took him in a different direction. “Nature is what got me started. Cycling along county roads taking shots with my smartphone, I was growing to love it more,” he says. “I posted on Instagram trying to get hits and decided to do it for a living.”

 

Photo Credit: Christopher Casson
Photo Credit: Christopher Casson
Photo Credit: Christopher Casson

He found a friend and mentor in Ron Delhaye, who owned Ron Delhaye Studios in the region before moving to Charleston, South Carolina. “I not only assisted him with wedding photography, but also family and maternity shots as well,” Casson says. “He’s very supportive and a mentor for me through all of this.”

Leading his own travel and event photography business, Casson has taken hundreds of photos and his favorites have been captured while traveling. “It’s a tie between the early morning mist on the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee that I shot in October as it’s just hovering at the tops and another one on the beach at Sullivan’s Island, near Charleston.”

Some of his prints will be on display in March at Roots Organic Juice Café in Valparaiso. Casson hopes he conveys the pictures’ emotional moments to viewers of his art. “I want them to feel the same sense of peace that I do and remind them of all the wonders that nature shows us.”

Photo Credit: Sonia Arkkelin
Bridget Nadolski teaches art at Myers Elementary School in Portage.

THE GREAT EQUALIZER

When students enter Bridget Nadolski’s classroom at Myers Elementary School in Portage, they will find a collaborative, creative space to discover their own forms of expression.

“Art is such a tool. It’s such a motivator for any student,” she says. “Sitting with pencil and paper and trying to focus on that all day long is a difficult task for any child. If you make lessons project-based, students are more engaged, no matter who they are.”

Teaching grades K-5, she has seen significant changes over the years for students with autism and those who have learning disabilities. “They go from making things unidentifiable to pictures that you can take to the art show. Students can have a frustration level, that at least in art, they can express themselves without the frustration,” she says. “They may not be able to verbally express themselves well, but can on paper.”

Social skills can also be sharpened in the art room, she says, of students with autism who may struggle with expressing themselves and interacting with others. “They can connect in a positive way as it’s a different, relaxed environment and not as rigid,” she says. “They sit at tables in groups with peer helpers and have to say please and thank you and that’s reinforced with participation and other children doing it.”

While Nadolski doesn’t have a specific art therapy background, she has extensive elementary school experience, including 14 years as a first-, second- and third-grade teacher before moving into the art room 17 years ago.

“Communication is number one with the team of teachers. If I don’t know what their triggers are, it sets them up for failure,” she says. “As their educator in this room, how can I help them reach success?”

Part of that success is helping guide each child toward his or her own pathway. “In the art room, they feel just like everybody else. Art doesn’t discriminate,” she says. “All students have a superpower, they just have to discover what it is. Mine is art. I tell the students, ‘You have to figure out what yours is.’”

Photo Credit: Sonia Arkkelin
Photo Credit: Sonia Arkkelin
Photo Credit: Sonia Arkkelin
Photo Credit: Sonia Arkkelin

A STORY TO TELL

Cindy Zahrn of Schererville first gleaned her son Henry’s artistic ability through the childhood tradition of drawing on the driveway with chalk.

Diagnosed with autism at the age of 2, art and storytelling have given Henry an opportunity to find his own way in the world. “It began with him reading a story, recording it on the computer, then tracing the cover of the book and drawing it the way he sees it,” Cindy says. “He expresses how he sees the world and has become more aware of his surroundings and feelings through storytelling.”

With his top art topics being children’s books and animals, he has found a place in his community through volunteering and by donating his artwork to nonprofit organizations.

“I homeschooled Henry for 20 years. We built a world of art and storytelling and keep expanding it through the community,” Cindy says.

When he heads out to read at schools or senior communities, Henry makes the process his own. “He has come up with his own gig when he is reading a story. He picks a T-shirt to wear that goes with the story in his own way. I do not tell him to do this,” Cindy says. “He wore a striped shirt when reading Thomas the Tank Engine because he thought it looked like railroad ties.”

All proceeds from his artwork go to nonprofits, including HoundSong Rescue and, when it was active, to the Autism Society of Illinois.

 

Photo Credit: Michelle Hamstra
Henry Zahrn is an artist and storyteller from Schererville.
Photo Credit: Michelle Hamstra
Henry Zahrn is an artist and storyteller from Schererville.

A STORY TO TELL

Cindy Zahrn of Schererville first gleaned her son Henry’s artistic ability through the childhood tradition of drawing on the driveway with chalk.

Diagnosed with autism at the age of 2, art and storytelling have given Henry an opportunity to find his own way in the world. “It began with him reading a story, recording it on the computer, then tracing the cover of the book and drawing it the way he sees it,” Cindy says. “He expresses how he sees the world and has become more aware of his surroundings and feelings through storytelling.”

With his top art topics being children’s books and animals, he has found a place in his community through volunteering and by donating his artwork to nonprofit organizations.

“I homeschooled Henry for 20 years. We built a world of art and storytelling and keep expanding it through the community,” Cindy says.

When he heads out to read at schools or senior communities, Henry makes the process his own. “He has come up with his own gig when he is reading a story. He picks a T-shirt to wear that goes with the story in his own way. I do not tell him to do this,” Cindy says. “He wore a striped shirt when reading Thomas the Tank Engine because he thought it looked like railroad ties.”

All proceeds from his artwork go to nonprofits, including HoundSong Rescue and, when it was active, to the Autism Society of Illinois.

 

Photo Credit: Michelle Hamstra
Photo Credit: Michelle Hamstra

Through email and the assistance of his mother, Henry says he enjoys doing art because it is “good” and he hopes his artwork is saying to viewers “to smile.”

Cindy says, “The connection has been amazing to bring him into our world and us into his—through art.”