Portraits promote awareness and acceptance of autism

  • Written by Deborah Stone
Autism Camden
Photo by Charlie Cotugno. Camden
In 2001, Charlie Cotugno’s son was diagnosed with autism at the age of three.

The Woodinville man, who was a photographer, wanted to do something to raise awareness of the disorder, as the rate of diagnosis was skyrocketing.

Four years later, he began a portrait project aimed at this mission.

“The original plan was to create about 12 to 15 large-format black and white portraits to exhibit around the community,” explains Cotugno. “Then things got a little bigger than I expected.”

autism Dean
Photo by Charlie Cotugno. Dean
By the end of 2008, the local man had amassed close to 50 pictures and had invested nearly $40,000 in time, materials and new equipment.


There were also costs associated with framing, keeping up with the demand for exhibits and requests for interviews from all over the country.

Cotugno says, “It was taking a considerable amount of time from my photography business and I just couldn’t afford to continue with it. I was ready to shut down the project when some parents and organizations I had been working with convinced me to establish a non-profit organization to help raise funds and keep it going.”

In September 2009, the Woodinville-based organization, Stories of Autism, was founded with the goal of promoting awareness, acceptance and inclusion of people with autism spectrum disorders in their communities.

Cotugno explains that this is done by matching volunteer professional photographers from around North America with children and adults with autism spectrum disorders in their area.

They coordinate a day and time for a portrait session and either the subjects or parents are asked to provide a short narrative about life with autism.

He adds, “They are free to write about whatever they’d like — anger, frustration, breakthrough moments, their love for their child —whatever moves them. As a whole, we want the project to be a balance of art and journalism that honestly portrays all aspects of dealing with autism.”

Autism Maggie
Photo by Charlie Cotugno. Maggie
Currently, there are 64 photographers from the U.S. and Canada who have contributed 207 portraits to the project.

Finding the subjects, according to Cotugno, can be the most challenging aspect of the work.

Those involved in the project look for organizations and service providers they can contact and ask for help in identifying potential subjects.

Participants choose to become involved mainly because they view it as a safe context for them to share their experiences, as they know there will be a level of understanding, connection and support from others who can relate to their situations.

“Sharing experiences is a basic human need,” comments Cotugno, “especially for those who have just received a diagnosis and don’t know where to turn or what to expect.”

He adds, “For many, Stories of Autism has provided a virtual community for learning and sharing through our social media presence. Many people just find it a great opportunity to educate others about autism by telling their story.”

Photographing the subjects can also be a challenging experience, notes Cotugno. He comments that preparation is essential in photographing anyone, but when working with individuals with special needs, it is even more crucial. “In my business,” he explains, “I always make sure I meet my clients beforehand to learn something about them and plan exactly how we’re going to create a portrait that shows them as being relaxed and at their best in front of the camera. You need to do the same thing with a special needs subject, but you’ve also got to understand any limitations or opportunities you are going to be presented with at the time. You need a plan A, B and C all figured out and ready to go. And you have to be ready and willing to throw them all out the window because there’s a good chance you’re going to be presented with a challenge you never anticipated.”

He adds, “But finding that one portrait that tells the story of your subject in the 1/250th of a second slice of time that your shutter opened and closed makes the whole experience worth every moment of panic.”

Stories of Autism photos have been exhibited in numerous places around the Seattle area. Coffee shops are popular spots, according to Cotugno, as they provide the most exposure and are the source of most of the feedback that the organization receives.

He says, “People generally frequent the same coffee shop and they may read one or two of the stories each time they visit. That type of repeated exposure seems to have the most effect on people.”

There have also been long-term exhibits at the Seattle Children’s Autism Center and both the Seattle and the Bellevue locations of Mosaic Rehabilitation, as well as for Special Olympics, Families for Effective Autism Treatment and most every other major autism service provide in Western Washington.

To date, most of the showings have been in the Seattle area, with just a few east of the Cascades and in the Vancouver area.

Cotugno notes that moving an exhibition around the country is an expensive proposition, which requires diligent and focused fundraising efforts.

He admits though that fundraising is not the primary mission of Stories with Autism, yet it is an important part of continuing the organization’s work.

“We really want to have a core collection of about 50 large-format images we can exhibit, not only in cities around the U.S. and Canada, but other places around the world,” he says. “Expanding the reach of the project is one of our primary goals. There’s no reason why every country in the world can’t be represented in this project. We also want to continue to elevate the level of photography by implementing very high standards for acceptance into the project. Without any of the stories or even knowing what the project is about, we want this to stand on its own as a world class photographic exhibit.”

He adds, “We’ve already got some absolutely amazing photographers associated with the project who are pushing us in that direction. To keep moving forward, our photographers need to continue pushing the limits of their creative thinking and break a few artistic rules. That’s the mindset we need to have in every aspect of the project to get it where we want it to be.”

In the interim, the organization is developing an app for the iPad that would present the best work from the project, allowing people to easily navigate between stories, subjects and photographers.

Cotugno hopes that the first version of the app will be available at the end of the summer. Future versions will allow users to search for images and photographers by geography. The app will be free and will include a convenient method of donating to the project.

Currently, photographs from Stories of Autism are on display in the lobby of Woodinville City Hall. The exhibit will run through July 31.
For more information about Stories of Autism:

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