Rosie Barnes

Understanding Stanley – Looking through Autism

Understanding Stanley – Looking through Autism is a highly personal project, inspired by my eldest son and made over a 14 year period.

In 1998, when my first born was 18 months old I exhibited some new work – A Boy’s Eye View. I was exploring notions of scale, reality, emotion, perception and perspective to try to understand how a young child makes sense of the world they find themselves inhabiting. Another 18 months on, Stanley was diagnosed as autistic and those images I’d made suddenly became incredibly poignant. I had been making work about him and his life as an autistic person, without realising it. The concepts that I’d grappled with were very much part of his life.

I was always struck by the frequent comment ‘he looks fine to me, you’d never know’. It made me realise that the invisibility of autism was going to be the biggest challenge for him to be accepted for who he was, and to be able to live his life happily, without judgement.

There were an incredible amount of text books about autism, which were really only being read by people already with a vested interest in studying or understanding this little known (at the time), complex condition. I wanted to create something quite different in the awareness, understanding and acceptance of autism. I wanted to create a new visual language, a book that would be able to reach ‘under the skin’ and allow others outside of the autism community, to get a feeling about what it might feel like to be autistic

I also wanted to give voice to autistic adults and so I interviewed and included their words of their experiences of being autistic, alongside the images.

The book (62 images and quotes) sold 1,200 copies and was ordered from every continent in the world.

Image Captions:

Image 5:

“There is truth in the tale of the Ugly Duckling. If you are a swan and unrecognised as such, living with a duck family, that thinks you are a duck, expects you to behave like a duck, and at times might coerce you to be more like a duck – you have a problem… You will have poor self-esteem and the need to isolate yourself at the same time that you try not to be isolated. Indeed, if things get bad enough, you will eventually decide that further attempts at communication will only bring on more trouble, so you stop trying to communicate”. Bob.

Image 10:

“Sometimes the physical mannerisms of someone who’s autistic, cause others to perceive us as ‘shifty’ or ‘trouble’. Many people like me find that as adults we can’t buy something in a shop without being followed around by a security guard, which is ironic given that we are typically painstakingly law-abiding”. Clare.

Image 13:

“Cheese & Onion, Salt & Vinegar, Ready Salted”. Stanley.

Image 18:

“When someone is walking towards me smiling, I have no understanding of whether they are happy, pleased to see me, or laughing at me”. Anon.

Image 20:

“I love objects that are shiny, glittery, colourful. Anything that has a strong sensory input. I consider them my friends. I have a bond with objects because they give me what I want and I give them a purpose in return. They make me happy”. Paul.

About the Artist

Artist Website

I am a documentary photographer from London, making images and stories about family, disability/difference and community. I also have a particular interest in making work about the environment and our relationship with the natural world. I have had a number of documentary story commissions for Guardian Weekend magazine amongst others and also had work exhibited in galleries and festivals in the UK and across Europe including the National Museum of Photography and TV, the National Portrait Gallery. Also in Frankfurt, Paris, Bratislava, Landskrona (Sweden) and Lishui (China).

I published Understanding Stanley – Looking through Autism in 2014, a highly personal, long term project about my eldest son, reviewed extensively in international press and on Photomonitor and Firecracker. It was widely praised both within and outside the autism community, for bringing a new and up to date understanding about autism to a wider audience. I have recently completed a commission from the Wellcome Collection, extending a 4 year project about autistic women.

Another long term project A Peculiar Convenience, a tragi-comedic study of our cultural relationship with the natural world, was included in Val Williams’ show New Natural History (1999). I have continued with the work and it was more recently awarded as winner at the Urbanautica International Awards 2020. In 2021 fifteen images from A Peculiar Convenience, were shown in a group show of 13 international artists – un/natural, curated by Format’s Louise Fedotov-Clements and Niamh Treacy at the Lishui Photography Festival in China.