Hidden Light: The Visual Language of an Autistic Photographer

Magnuson Park, Seattle, February 10

Magnuson Park, Seattle, February 10

The playful symmetry of fin-shaped sculptures on grass. Sun bright on ivory petals framed in blue water and sky, or exploding through a lacy armature of branches. Seattle-based photographer Forrest Sargent says that he uses his camera to uncover the “hidden light” in things.

Meanwhile Sargent, who is just 20 years old, shines his own hidden light through these haunting images. Strappingly handsome, six foot two, and profoundly autistic, he is unable to speak in the usual way. When he tries, he utters a cacophony of sounds that have clear meaning to him but to no one else. Until just a couple of years ago, even Sargent’s parents were unsure how much was going on inside the mind of their son.

It turned out to be a lot.

Buddha, Flower World, Maltby WA

Buddha, Flower World, Maltby WA

Sargent was born in Tokyo. When he turned two, his mother and father — Denny, a linguist and college professor, and Rebecca, an artist — brought him to Korea on vacation. After seeing the child run into a temple, clap his hands, and bow before an altar, a priest told his parents that their son was a reincarnated Buddhist, and presented them with a set of beads to give him when he got older.

A few months later, however, Sargent abruptly withdrew into himself and began throwing tantrums that terrified his parents. A pediatrician blamed his condition on Rebecca, accusing her of being a “refrigerator mother” — a cruel reference to Bruno Bettelheim’s thoroughly debunked theory of autism being caused by emotionally distant parenting. A specialist confirmed the pediatrician’s diagnosis of autism, and a long and difficult journey began for both the boy and his parents.

Karen and Robert's Farm, Forrest's birthday, 2010

Karen and Robert's Farm, Forrest's birthday, 2010

Denny and Rebecca tried everything to help their son, from a smorgasbord of psychiatric drugs to homeopathy, hydrotherapy, and blessings from a Tibetan priest. The only thing that seemed to cool his rages was a gluten-free and casein-free diet. But even that stopped working once the storms of puberty hit.

Sargent would become so angry — biting and scratching anyone in reach — that he left a patchwork of scars on his father’s body and sent his mother to the emergency room. Denny and Rebecca tried to keep their son at home while they sought various forms of support, but they found themselves overwhelmed.

“We were completely heartbroken, but we could no longer keep Forrest here,” Denny says. “He had basically destroyed our house.”

After a long search, the couple found a place for their son in a group home in Seattle. But then the home was shut down when some neighbors protested that they didn’t want a facility like that in their backyard. For years, Sargent bounced from one institution to another, on an ever-changing roller-coaster of meds that made him even more unstable.

One night a couple of years ago, attendants at another group home phoned 911, strapped Sargent to a gurney, and dispatched him to a psychiatric hospital catering to older homeless alcoholics, where he was locked in a padded cell.

“Forrest was in hell,” says Denny. “We went to the hospital and they told us, ‘We don’t know autism.’”

Volunteer Park, February 2011

Volunteer Park, February 2011

Luckily, by that point, Denny and Rebecca had found a way to communicate with their son. They went to Texas to learn a technique for teaching non-verbal autistic kids how to form words by pointing to a letterboard, known as the Rapid Prompting Method. RPM was developed by the mother of a witty non-verbal young man named Tito Mukhopadhyay, who is now the author of books like The Mind Tree and How Can I Talk If My Lips Don’t Move?

The method is controversial. Critics point out that RPM is expensive and lacks independent verification of efficacy. But Denny believes it was a breakthrough for his son. “For the first time in his life,” he recalls, “Forrest was able to articulate a preference to us beyond ‘juice’ and ‘peepee.’”

And what his son wanted was a camera.

Richmond Beach cliff walk, March 2010

Richmond Beach cliff walk, March 2010

Sargent enjoyed hiking in the mountains and parks of the Pacific Northwest. But with his digital Nikon, he could show other people what delights him, what catches his eye, and what he thinks is beautiful. The result is a torrent of marvelous, quirky, vivid, poignant images that offer a view of the world that “neurotypicals” rarely get to see — a non-verbal autistic mind from the inside, looking out.

Forrest Sargent on a horse

Forrest Sargent (photo by Denny Sargent)

Like Temple Grandin, the subject of a recent, deservedly acclaimed HBO biopic starring Clare Danes, Sargent is biophilic: he makes deep connections with animals, like the horses that stare insouciantly into the human world in his photos. Defying the stereotype of autistic people as uninterested in relationships, one of the first things he told his parents with the letterboard is that he wishes he had a girlfriend.

“Forrest said ‘I have no friends,’” Denny recalls. “He said, ‘No one trusts me, and I don’t trust anybody else.’ I told him it was because of the rages. He asked his psychologist, ‘Am I crazy?’”

Forrest and Denny Sargent doing RPM

Forrest and Denny Sargent doing RPM with a letterboard

As Sargent has garnered praise for his photography —  recently exhibited at an art gallery in Olympia, Washington, which earned him local TV coverage — his confidence and sense of connection with other people have grown. For Christmas, his parents got him a smaller Canon that’s easier to hold than the sturdy Nikon.

Magnuson Park, Seattle, February, 2010

Magnuson Park, Seattle, February, 2010

I interviewed Sargent using the letterboard and RPM with his father.

Steve Silberman: What do you enjoy most about photography?

Forrest Sargent: I love showing the truth of all things.

Silberman: How does taking photographs show the truth of things?

Sargent: It reveals the hidden light of life.

Twin Ponds

Twin Ponds

Silberman: What makes you really happy?

Sargent: It makes me feel happy when people see my true self and not just my autism.

Silberman: What do you want to be when you get older?

Sargent: I am a photographer. I love it and want to make money doing it.

Horse, Karen and Robert's farm

Horse, Karen and Robert's farm, Forrest's birthday 2010

Silberman: What frustrates you?

Sargent: I am frustrated about my body. It isn’t able to do everything.

Silberman: If you could tell the world something about yourself, what would that be?

Sargent: I am smart and have a lot to say.

Flower World, Maltby WA

Flower World, Maltby WA

The letterboard has enabled Sargent and his parents to have exchanges about many aspects of his life that were impossible to talk about before, including the boy’s perceptions of his own language. When Denny played his son the audio file of his speaking voice, Sargent reached for the letterboard.

Forrest: I am surprised at how I sound.

Denny: Why?

Forrest: Because I think I am talking.

Denny: What do you you think you are saying?

Forrest: I’m trying to say something important.

Magnuson Park, February 2010

Magnuson Park, February 2010

Denny: (listening to the MP3) What does tobeese, tobeese mean?

Forrest: It means I want.

Denny: OK, what does modee modee! mean?

Forrest: It means I am mad.

Denny: What does kooee kooee! mean?

Forrest: I am glad.

Karen and Robert's Farm, Forrest's birthday, 2010

Karen and Robert's Farm, Forrest's birthday, 2010

Denny: What does it mean when you blow out rapidly (hshhh hshhh)?

Forrest: It means hurry up.

Denny: So what do you think about all this?

Forrest: It means I can understand you but you can’t understand me.

Vivi and Madi, April 2010

Forrest's cousin Vivian and a friend, Madi, April 2010

Though Sargent seems calmer these days — which Denny attributes to his photography, the letterboard, a finely-tuned combination of drugs (including lithium, Depakote, and Risperdal), and his current residency in a progressive center for the disabled called Fircrest — the family’s odyssey is far from over. Now that their son has turned 20, Denny and Rebecca are discovering that even many of the barely adequate support systems in place for the families of autistic kids evaporate when they become young adults.

Richmond Beach, February 2010

Richmond Beach, February 2010

But at least now instead of sorting spoons — one of the mindless activities used to occupy the residents of one of the facilities where Sargent lived for a while — he can sift through the beauty of his own making, seeking images that reveal the truth of all things.

University of Washington Arboretum, March 2010

University of Washington Arboretum, March 2010

[Note: All photographs by Forrest Sargent unless otherwise specified, used with the permission of Denny Sargent. Images are available for sale at the Sargents' website.]

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45 Responses to Hidden Light: The Visual Language of an Autistic Photographer

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  3. Joanna says:

    I am a photography student with autism spectrum disorder I am 26. I want to restore old photos for a living and I can honestly say that these photos are as good as any of the ones I see and school by students or teachers. When I was a kid and still some times now I would say one word and think I sed something else like I would say “world” and I would think I sed “help” for a long time I did not know this was happening until my Mum starting repeating things that did not make sense and asked me if that was what I sed I was shocked. Thank you for this story it shows what I keep telling people I may be different and not do things the same as other people but that does not mean I can not do them.
    All the best

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  5. Pamela says:

    This story truly touched me. Our son has a brain injury and has trouble communicating. The other day he asked for my camera and it was the happiest time for him. He spent over an hour taking random pics through our house. Now I am thinking about getting him his own camera. He is only 5 but I felt like he was speaking volumes! Thought maybe I was trying to make to much out of it. Now reading this story I am feeling hopeful! Thank you for a wonderful and inspiring story!

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  6. Jess says:

    My 2 year old son was recently diagnosed as having an autism spectrum disorder. He is non-verbal and I have been so afraid of what life holds for him. Since his diagnosis, I feel like we have been thrown into a whole new world and I am trying desperately to gather as much helpful information as possible. Forrest, I want to thank you for opening my eyes. Through your photographs, you are sharing your thoughtful mind and your beautiful spirit. You have given me hope that my son will know the world around him and that, one day, I will reach him. You are a gift. Thank you.

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    • sherilinr says:

      hang in there. when you first find out, it’s easy to feel like your life has spun totally out of control & that your kid is broken. but he’s not. just put together differently. things will get easier and there will come a day when you’ll realize that your son is exactly perfect & you wouldn’t want him to be any other way. the pros will eventually outweigh the bads and the bad days don’t last forever.

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    • MCosta says:

      Hello,

      My daughter as ASD, and our life is sometimes dificult, but in the end it is wonderfull. If you can afford: try the Floortime/DIR model of intervention, add a speach therapist and a sensory integration therapist is also important.
      And the most important: lots of love and tons of patience ;)

      Sorry for my bad english and best regards,

      Marco Costa, RN
      Portugal

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  7. Ellenora Hurt says:

    A very eye opening story.

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  9. Sara says:

    Soumia, my son is autistic and used his own language for a while. And no they don’t seem to notice, I think it’s because it’s such an effort to plan what to say and make it physically happen. I believe they don’t think in language and have to translate. Slowly they like English is a second language they become faster at translating but still struggle at the physical requirements of speech.
    It is definately an individual language particular to the person filled with sounds! My son still says liddle liddle liddle as his happy sound it always makes me smile!
    Also you need to do what works for you!
    A portable assistive communication device might be a good next step. New iPads have cameras and you can get the proloquo2go app which looks great!
    All the best!

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  13. Soumia says:

    This was a fantastic read on a Saturday afternoon. A very inspiring and touching story and very well-written, Steve Silberman. I’m particularly interested in the sounds being replayed:

    1)if it sounds completely different from intended thought, how can one not catch on to it immediately after hearing onselef mouth the mouth (eg. echoing on inner voice etc).
    2)if we were to record all of these sounds and get their meanings from patients, is there a global autistic language or is the sound particular and personal for each patient?

    Finally, Sargent, if you or anyone you know is reading this, I just want to say how much you’ve inspired me and to reiterate that you indeed do say truly important things through your striking images; I get a very poetic outlook on life and your approach to the universe as a whole through your framing, shadowing etc – your photos are amazing and speak volumes!

    Best,
    Soumia
    twitter.com/soumianf

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    • Steve Silberman says:

      Thanks so much, Soumia. I suspect that if there was a “global autistic language” (a fascinating idea) that it would have been discovered before. But more research along those lines sounds interesting.

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  14. Forrest – you are such a talented photographer. It’s a privilege to see the world through your eyes and your camera. I am deeply moved when I look at your photographs.

    Thank you, Steve, for writing this beautiful, powerful story.

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  15. Barb says:

    Hey Steve, this article really took my breath away, especially this: Taking photographs show the truth of things ….It reveals the hidden light of life.

    Stunning, and really lovely photos. Thanks.

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  16. gregdowney says:

    Thanks, Steve — this is really well done, and I’m moved to learn about Forrest’s story.

    I’m especially interested to read about the use of photography and RPM, which seem to at least offer some hope to parents, families and helpers who are trying to find ways of communicating with non-verbal autistic children. While I’m sure there are issues and controversies, my experience in high school in the 80s of working with profoundly autistic kids was that there were simply no options, no avenues even to try.

    Reading what Forrest was able to communicate through RPM was really moving.

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  17. Kaaren Johnson says:

    Your pictures are exquisite, Forrest. You have discovered such beauty and insight over the years that I have known your parents. What a remarkable young man you have become. Your parents are also so very special.

    I look forward to more opportunities to see your photography and the insights and vistas you bring to light!!
    Thank you for your gifts.

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  18. Dani Rose says:

    I am a photographer and when my son James now 7yrs who has aspergers was little and we absolutely had to take him to a place we knew would be crowded or overly noisy i would give him a packet of disposable film cameras , he would become absorbed in taking photos and not worry as much about all the people and the noise and his agitation would be less. I like the way he sees things through the lens, and it was a way for him to participate in his own way

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  19. I was stunned by the beauty of your photos Forrest, and you are beautiful in the purest sense imaginable. I also am partially disabled mentally: mostly idiot with a little savant mixed in. I would like you to listen to some of my composed classical music on http://www.frederickshoenberger.com and tell me what you see in some fashion and/or describe how you relate to music. I hear “information” being spoken in your sound recording posted on this blog and plan on analyzing it with my audio hardware and software to come up with ideas on how to communicate aurally with you and others who are so-called “disabled” in this way.
    You inspire me a great deal!
    Rick

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  20. Stephen says:

    It’s always encouraging to hear of solutions to serious issues.

    I have a friend who claims to be on the spectrum, though i’m no expert. He gets along alright. He and i share the hobby of astronomy. He commits much of his free time and cash to it.

    When i was a kid, there was occasional talk of historic “idiot savants”. These were people, sometimes kids, who had some single extraordinary skill, but otherwise couldn’t take care of themselves. There seemed to be no explanation for the extraordinary skill. It was some sort of weird magic. As i grew older, i wondered if it wasn’t some sort of autism. Sense confusion, for example hearing colors or smelling sounds is more common with autism than in the general population. In particular, having some sensation associated with numbers is more common. This can draw these people to think exclusively about numbers, and can lead to amazing math skills. Amazing, like 10 digit division as mental arithmetic.

    In high school, my uncle gave me a Japanese abacus and two books on the subject. After 3 months of study, i was able to do 20 digit divides as mental arithmetic (in about 4 mintues), and had clearly not reached any obvious limits. Amazing, but i didn’t have to figure out the technique, just learn it. It says something about percieved limits of the brain, and what may really be possible. I’m not saying that anyone could perform this well, but everyone could benefit from learning the basics. And perhaps this well understood technique could be used as part of therapy for some interested autistics. It’d be nice if there was some vocation that this could lead to. Maybe there is.

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  21. Huda Jamaleddine says:

    This article came right in time, as it clarifies to all of us who face challenges of all sorts, our children’s difficulties to communicate with the world. Our 6 year old son was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, and we have searched everywhere to find ways to help him out. Thank you for the precious information. It will certainly guide us and give us more and more hope from now on.
    Huda
    Brasilia/Brazil

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  22. Uncle Scott says:

    Another amazing article Forrest! you have truly come into your own as a talented new artist. You are destined for greatness : ) Happy Rabbit!
    Love Uncle Scott

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  23. Lauren Heerschap says:

    Forrest,

    Your photos are very good. I shoot a Canon too. I think I might live in your neighborhood. Do you have a show now? Would you please let me know where? I am a teacher and know about autism. My hobby is photography. Sometimes our church displays photography for sale – would you be interested?

    Lauren Heerschap

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  24. Cathy A says:

    Neat story about a wonderful young man. It really makes me want to know what my non-verbal son is trying to tell me, but also to know that I should persist because he is trying to tell me something.

    I love the pictures! Beautiful!

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  25. Lisa Loewen says:

    Wonderful work, especially the sky images.

    :)

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  26. Lucy says:

    Beautiful work, Forrest. You have a poet’s soul and speak volumes through your pictures. Don’t ever stop speaking in this manner. The world is listening.

    From a fellow artist,
    Lucy

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  28. paradigm_5894@hotmail.com says:

    nice shots forrest!

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  29. Rob says:

    I see Forrest did have a show. Ashe to that! Good to see “Twin Ponds” again.
    This is Art.

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  30. Lorie Johnson says:

    Fascinating story. I am glad that there are ways that we can communicate with profoundly autistic people. It’s almost akin to a ‘first contact’ scenario in some ways.

    Forrest’s photography is beautiful. I hope he can find a way to make a living with it.

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  31. What an Amazing breakthrough!

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  32. Rob says:

    This young man is a GREAT photographer, second to none. I feel like I am stealing when I buy his work. He should have a show.

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  33. Steve, thank you for writing about our son so beautifully and in such a deep and powerful way. We discussed so much that I wasn’t sure how it would all come together, but I am very happy and will let you know what Forrest thinks, I’m sure he will be very pleased!

    I do want to may a few comment about RPM because the article linked to in the blog is quite critical.

    First, the costs mentioned are nothing like I’ve ever seen in the RPM training. We went to Austin and had a 4 day intensive training in RPM and it only cost us a few thousand dollars. I’d like to add that everyone there was, like us, at the end of their rope and had tried EVERYTHING else.

    Second, while I can see the point of the author, the issue is more that Soma has simply not made the academic/research connections we all urge her to do. In other words, it has NOT been disproven, but it has not however gathered enough data to judge it- something I await.

    Finally, it works. Forrest has said many surprising things that we could not possibly have “manipulated” or made up, including facts we could not have known about. For us, it is a lifeline and the ONLY way Forrest has been able to communicate.

    While I understand the issues, from a parent’s point of view, if it works, it works. You will easily find hundreds of testemonies to this. Since there is no other technique we know of to help Forrest escape his “autism bubble” we rely on RPM and are using it as a stepping stone to using a keyboard on his own, which he is now doing. That alone should convince sceptics that RPM, while not evaluated properly, is a powerful communication tool.

    At this point we have trained 6-8 others, including teachers and aides, to use RPM with Forrest with great success. If it was really not ‘real’ this would not be possible. One therapist who has fought us on using RPM at his living unit said to us, citing articles like the one linked to in the blog, yelled at us at one meeting “Just because something works does not make it sound methodology!”

    I disagree- to a parent with no other option, who is desperate to understand their child, if it works, it is a godsend- period.

    Thanks again, you are amazing!

    Denny Sargent (Forrest’s Father)

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    • Heather List says:

      Attempts were made to use ‘facilitated communication’ with our daughter Heidi. It involved applying resistance to the hand as the finger aimed for the letter on the keyboard. Some fancy replies were coming out, so we started asking Heidi questions which only she knew the answer to, such as “What did you drink at breakfast time this morning” After several bursts of random letters we eventually got the word ‘hot’ typed out. A correct answer would have been ‘Inca’, which Heidi always drank warm, not hot. So we tried again. “What is the name of our ginger cat?” Again, lots of random letters. In desperation the therapist asked us, “What letter does it start with?” “R” we replied, “The ginger cat’s name starts with R”. Immediately the word ‘Rusty’ was typed out, which was interesting because the cat’s name was Roger. Heidi knew no cat called Rusty. So one way to test the validity of facilitated communication is to ask questions which the therapist doesn’t know the answer to, but the client does. Another perfectly easy test is to ensure that the therapist can’t see the keyboard, but the client can. I don’t know if tests such as these could apply to your system.

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  34. Therese Verzosa says:

    Dear Forrest,

    Your story brought tears to my eyes and a lump on my throat. You are a beautiful person. In fact, I did not have to tell you. I believe you already know that you are beautiful. I am deeply touched when you said you wanted others to see you for who you are and not only through the lens of Autism.

    I have a boy myself who has Autism. He is 7. And just like you, he loves to take pictures. When I saw your photos, something hit me really hard. Like a burst of hope. For whatever Zach cannot say yet, I know he says it through the way he sees things through his pictures.

    We live in Washington too. One day, hopefully, we could get to meet you and the wonderful set of parents you have.

    Your story is one that inspires even the most sluggish human being.

    All the best to you and may people see the goodness and beauty that is in Autism through the pictures you take.

    Sincerely Yours,

    Therese Verzosa
    Auburn, Washington

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  35. Nancy Shute says:

    Thank you, Steve, for telling a story that needs to be heard.

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  36. Lauren Gravitz says:

    I’m with Ed–this is fantastic and, without question, worth paying for.

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  37. Ed Yong says:

    This is wonderful. I’d pay for journalism like this.

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  38. Kea Giles says:

    Beautiful post – beautiful pictures, writing, story. Thank you Denny Sargent and Steve Silberman.

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