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Exploring the mysteries of autism

By Jimmy Alford | Published Wednesday, December 26, 2012

I believe one of the hallmarks of my profession is the ability to give back to a community. We all like to think that our work helps people in some way.

I’ve been writing and photographing stories about autistic children for six years now. It has been a journey that has shaped me and helped me in my work. But I have to be honest: I started reporting on this subject not for any altruistic reason, but because a professor challenged me.

Jimmy Alford

I was still in college and looking down the barrel of an upcoming photo assignment. My photojournalism professor and mentor at UNT had challenged us to create a compelling photo story. Then later, he pulled me aside and matter-of-factly told me he expected way more from me, and I really had to dig deep for this assignment.

I was flattered, but at the same time nervous.

I had been told on many occasions that a few areas go underreported and deserve more attention: women’s issues, labor issues and children’s issues.

I had also been told that as a man, reporting on women’s issues would be tough – really tough. And living in Texas, I didn’t think labor issues would get me anywhere.

So I started thinking about kids’ issues. Soon I discovered the Walk for Autism that took place in Arlington. It was completely by chance, and by prodding from my teacher, that I chose to do my first story about autism.

At the walk I found 4-year-old Sophie and her mom and dad. They let me visit their Flower Mound home over the course of several weeks and shared with me their struggles.

I never knew anything about autism, or what it was like being the parent of an autistic child, before I met them. I quickly discovered how rare this opportunity was.

When it was all said and done, I made an A. I still keep a few of those photos in my portfolio, but I revisit autism frequently. It has changed my life.

Autism remains a mystery. Science has been unable to pin down a cure or a cause, but the frequency of diagnosis has been increasing steadily. The Centers for Disease Control now says that one in 88 kids will have some form of autism, although girls remain much less likely to develop autism than boys.

I’m drawn to the enigma.

I’m also drawn to autism because I see bits and pieces of myself in these children. I see the social awkwardness, the obsession with routines and many other qualities. I don’t have autism, nor do I exhibit the extreme tendencies found in many of these children – but I see enough that I have developed a deep empathy for them.

It is this empathy and joy that drives me to continue.

A couple of months ago, I went to the same annual Walk for Autism and took photos of families, donating my time. More recently, I interviewed a family here in Decatur. I saw the joy in their lives, even though they will have to deal with their son’s autism for the rest of their lives.

It never goes away, but they are happy. They feel blessed. And their boy, Xander, is happy, as if he realizes how lucky he is to have such a supportive family.

In the long-term, I’m gathering these experiences for a larger project. I’m still looking for families wrestling with this disorder, and here’s where I ask for help.

Help me make a difference. If you know a family or have a child who has autism, I would love to talk to you. My goal is to raise awareness, to encourage these families as they live with the reality of a condition that remains a mystery to medical researchers.

I want to help my community.

In the end, that’s the way we all help ourselves.

Jimmy Alford is a Messenger reporter.

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