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Shay McAtee

The Spirit Within: Insights into the Autism Spectrum

The Spirit Within: Insights into the Autism Spectrum is a 10-year project, culminating in a book containing photographs of 52 children / teens, with interviews of their parents (and occasionally, a sibling or the subject themself). The photographs are candid, often taken in the child’s home. They are not posed, unless that is what the child offered. The interviews were an opportunity for the parents to share what is beautiful about their child, while also describing the difficulties their child might have fitting into the typical world. As one mother said, “This is fun for us to get a chance to brag about our son. We don’t often get that opportunity. There’s so much information about the problems of autism, and there is definitely a time and a place for that. But I’m glad that we also get to share what is wonderful about our son.”


©Shay McAtee, Jimmy George (7yrs, 2months), 2007

"He still is developing his verbal skills. He doesn’t use his words all the time. He won’t tell me when he’s in pain or why. He doesn’t engage in social interaction with his own peers. When his peers want to hug him, he’s starting to hug back, because he knows that they’re not trying to hurt him. He’s processing all that and it’s starting to sink in. Today I saw a little girl in his class hug him and when he hugged her back, I almost cried."  - Jimmy George’s mom


"There was something magical about the first time he saw his little sister. There was a look on his face that was different than all the looks I’d ever seen before. You could tell that he knew that this little baby was different than all the other babies in the world. As time went by, there was more of a social connectedness in our house. It started to fall into place." - Damian’s mom

©Shay McAtee, Damian (5yrs, 2mos) with his mom and sister, 2008


©Shay McAtee, August (7yrs), 2008

"We’re very tuned into all the little successes. There’s always something new. A while back he smiled when I picked him up from school. I realized that, up until then, he didn’t usually smile when I picked him up. It was a big deal that he was happy to see me. Little things are big successes. Making it through the entire school day without having a fit or being aggressive is a big success. You really learn to appreciate the little things. Although they are not little. They’re huge, but it’s just a little bit every day, instead of these giant leaps."  - August’s mom


©Shay McAtee, Eleni (13yrs, 7mos) and her younger sister, 2007

"Eleni has a very loving spirit and she will do anything for her younger sister, Kate. They don’t have a typical sister relationship, because most sisters fight some of the time. But these two get along really well. Whatever Kate wants, Eleni gives her. And Kate does everything for Eleni. For most of her life, Kate has taken on a therapist role for Eleni. They play games that they have made up together. It’s a way for Kate to bring Eleni in and try to get her to interact in different ways."  - Eleni’s dad

"Amberly is very artistic. She loves to draw. She is happy most of the time, although she is a little more moody as she is becoming a teenager. When she’s mad, she will run upstairs to her bedroom and slam the door. It’s very typical teenage behavior. If I come in the room, she’ll go into her closet. Then I know that she has to have some down time. Mostly, she’s pretty good. She gets over things pretty quickly."

- Amberly’s mom


©Shay McAtee, "The Artist" Amberly (12yrs, 9mos), 2008


©Shay McAtee, Adam (14yrs, 7mos), 2008

"Adam is very laid-back. He has a good heart. He has empathy for other kids, especially kids that are getting picked on. When Adam was eleven or twelve-years-old he was being bullied for a brief time. Finally, he went in by himself and met with the principal. He got a restraining order which said that the bully had to stay at least twenty feet away from him. And it worked. Growing up he was always able to say, 'This feels uncomfortable, so I’m not going to do it that way. I’m going to do it my way.' "  - Adam’s parents


This project combines my love of photography with my years of working as a pediatric occupational therapist, often with children from the spectrum. I have had the opportunity to present and exhibit this project at local galleries, as well as at international conferences, and have received interest in replicating the project in other countries.

The book is dedicated to the parents of children on the spectrum, especially those who have children that have been recently identified, as they navigate the steep learning curve that accompanies the diagnosis. It is for the families and friends of parents with children on the spectrum, who are looking for greater insight into the autism spectrum experience. It is for the professionals who are a part of these lives, to help us all remember to ask for and listen to the stories. And it is for society in general, especially those who are interested in understanding the autism spectrum in a deeper, more relational way. The Spirit Within: Insights from the Autism Spectrum is available through most on-line bookstores.

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