Echolilia: A Father’s Photographic Conversation with his Autistic Son

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We were preparing a special issue on children and mental health, and photographer Timothy Archibald’s project “Echolilia” came to mind. Archibald had photographed his son Elijah, who suffers from echolilia, as a way to find an emotional bridge. Following are some of the photographs he and Elijah made together, along with text from his book Echolilia: Sometimes I Wonder, plus photographs that the father and son created exclusively for TIME.

My eldest son was born in 2001. He was always a kid who went to the beat of his own drummer. When he was 5, we began making photographs collaboratively as a way to find some common ground and attempt to understand each other. Soon after we began the project, Elijah was diagnosed on the autistic spectrum. Though the diagnosis gave me the words and history to understand my son better, it didn't take away the mystery and the need to try to find an emotional bridge to him.Timothy Archibald / Redux Pictures
"Echolilia" is an alternate spelling of a more common term, "echolalia," used in the autistic community to refer to the habit of verbal repetition and copying that is commonly found in autistic kids' behavior. I liked the idea of it: photography is a form of copying. Kids are a form of repetition. And looking at my kid with photography allowed me to see myself anew. Timothy Archibald / Redux Pictures
When we collaborate, sometimes I lead, sometimes he leads, but Eli often does something unexpected ... something I'd never have been able to think of. We look at the images together on the digital camera and try to refine them, try to improve them, take them in other directions. I liked the idea of turning creative control over to a child, while I operate the camera. Timothy Archibald / Redux for TIME
While trying to assemble this shot, I asked my son if we should use a pillow case that was simpler ... maybe something without a pattern on it. He glanced at the pillow for a moment and said, "This is a story about kids. What kid wouldn't want a pillow case with stars and clouds exploding on it?" With that sage advice, I realized we had everything we needed to make the shot.Timothy Archibald / Redux Pictures
In the late afternoon, the electronic noises start. The beeping of a garbage truck when it is backing up, the sounds of an engine shifting into high gear, the beeping of a microwave oven. The sound is very loud. "Can you make those noises any softer please?" No, I can't. That is the volume that the machine creates. It can't be turned down.Timothy Archibald / Redux Pictures
Balloon smile
I wanted an image that touched on clinical depression in children, or maybe something that represented a general mood disorder. The smiley balloons were a natural prop, but Eli's mile-long stare is what held the image together and gave it its soul. We shot this in his room, when we knew the light would be revealing, while he was wearing his mother's sweatshirt.Timothy Archibald / Redux Pictures
Repeated obsessively whenever we encounter a moving door. At the library, on a bus, at the supermarket. It comes from deep within and interrupts common conversation. It's stated as an impulse, not as a collection of thoughts expressed, repeated in exact tone and rhythm without meaning. This is echolilia.Timothy Archibald / Redux Pictures
Eli is not what one would think of as traditionally autistic. He has a huge vocabulary, goes to public school, gets good grades. But he is clearly on a different channel. Timothy Archibald / Redux Pictures
It was Christmas break and Eli was home from school for two weeks. He had gotten fixated on having fires in our fireplace during that time: the fire, the matches, the kindling, the logs we'd find at a park ... every detail he was taken by, and the ritual of starting a fire was something he repeated and repeated. Around that time, he got attached to one of the logs and would not let us burn it. He liked its size, the knobs, the natural handles it had. He suggested we make some pictures with it. Timothy Archibald / Redux Pictures
We had a large plastic container in the room and Eli had been playing in it the night before, putting his body all the way into it. I think I asked him if he wanted to make some photographs with it when it was sunny the next day. He started just being in it: standing, hiding beneath it. Then we realized that it could contain him lengthwise if he curled himself up as if he were in an egg.Timothy Archibald / Redux Pictures
Eli had recently lost a tooth and also had come home with this mask of cut paper. We had been discussing the tooth fairy: Who is she? What form does he or she take? Does she fly? Walk? Is it a boy or a girl? Eli felt she was white, like a tooth in some way, and we made some photographs with the white shirt he had on, white mask, hovering around our backyard fence. We looked at the pictures, and he felt it wasn't really the tooth fairy but us trying to guess at the tooth fairy's shape in a photograph.Timothy Archibald / Redux Pictures
For me, these photographs are not of him; they are about a relationship. I always think of that relationship as having three components: him, myself and then the shared stuff that we can't really define. The feeling we get when we look at all the photographs together is the channel that defines the project. That is the echolilia thing. Timothy Archibald / Redux Pictures

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