Portrait project puts a face on autism at Mental Health Symposium
Four years ago, Congress passed the Combating Autism Act of 2006, which authorized $700 million in Federal funding towards autism through 2011. However, come September, the act will die.
April is autism awareness month, and because of that the College of Humanities & Social Sciences and College of Science & Health presented the 2011 Mental Health Symposium: Focus on Autism conference on campus last week.
The Sorenson Student Center’s Ballroom perimeter was lined with basic informational booths for family services and support groups. One booth was there primarily to raise the awareness of parents about free classes for mothers with autistic children.
A visual display of 31 color portraits of people with autistic spectrum disorders was dispayed in hopes of raising awareness. The photos ranged from headshots of toddlers to adults, which hung neatly on the back wall in the center of the ballroom commons.
An assistant professor of Art and Photography at Utah State University, Christopher M. Gauthier created this portrait art piece titled, “Evidence and Artifacts: 1 in 110,” to coincide with recent statistics that one in 110 children is affected with autistic spectrum disorders in the United States.
Gauthier consulted with his wife, Jacqueline Gauthier, who describes her occupation as “advocate mom,” about the nature and meaning of the portrait project. Together, they explained the intention of “Evidence and Artifacts: 1 in 110” and hung the foam-backed 8×10 typed description on the wall, next to Jacqueline’s portrait.
“We began this project in a desire to move past merely raising awareness about autism and taking an active role about shaping national dialogue,” the couple wrote.
Gauthier feels the collection of portraits offers viewers with an alternative to stigmas and media representations of autism, because the portraits compel the viewer’s engagement and allows a sensitive visual knowledge of the individual faces.
“We believe what is revealed by the portraits has the power to push conversations past the political entanglements preventing funding for a massive and comprehensive research effort to find answers for our children,” the couple wrote.
The project’s description states, “In the act of looking, the viewer may have a sense of being ‘seen’ by the children, in their delight and anguish; ‘seen’ by the fierce and loving families in their grief and hope; ‘seen’ by the teachers and therapists in their commitment to the notion that all children can learn; ‘seen’ by the compassionate medical professionals in their search for ways to relieve human suffering and seen by the scientific and academic research community who dare to raise disquiet is their pursuit of truth.”
Advocates fight for a rewrite of this critical legislation in order to appropriately represent the concerns of the autism community. The Combating Autism Act Reauthorization Coalition is encouraging legislation to recognize that the country faces a national public emergency due to rising autistic rates, focus strategic new research in areas that can produce meaningful results, dedicate Federal funds to research that will halt the autism epidemic and end health insurance discrimination against those with autism, to name a few.
According to the Gautheirs, Utah faces an urgent, under-funded national public health emergency. The minds and bodies ranging from toddlers to adults are being held hostage in the politics of autism—and while the cause of autism remains unknown, raising awareness for equality and fundraising research for a cure continues.