Photographer Ashleigh Raddatz, 31, moved from California to Germany six years ago. A year later, she and her husband Steffen, who is German, welcomed their first son, August, into the world.
From the start, Raddatz sensed something was different about their boy. As a baby, his senses were heightened and the slightest disturbance would make him inconsolable. As August got older, he barely spoke. At times, the family wondered if he was deaf.
After years of evaluations and various interventions, August was officially diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) last year. Throughout that time Raddatz ― who specializes in documentary-style family photography ― has lovingly chronicled her son’s life, capturing his daily rituals and rhythms, which are a huge part of who he is. August loves costumes, she told The Huffington Post. He likes playing with Legos and collecting sticks.
“This project has opened my eyes in so many ways,” Raddatz said. “I have continuously thought to myself, ‘My gosh, if parents could see their special needs child through photographs the way that I am seeing mine now, it could help bring them so much clarity and peace.’”
Below are 22 gorgeous photos from that series.
August is 5 and was officially diagnosed with autism this year, although he has been receiving therapies and early intervention for more than two years. In that time, I have slowly come to terms with knowing that his future may look a bit different than what I had imagined when he was still in my belly.
I'm an American living in Germany, so when August was first diagnosed, I felt a bit isolated. I didn't have any extended family close by to turn to for support. Photographing him has become a saving grace for me, and has helped me so much in accepting his diagnosis.
When we first found out he needed to be evaluated for autism, I couldn't wrap my mind around it. Hearing from his pediatrician that his lack of speech wasn't simply because he was growing up in a bilingual household, or that his obsession with playing with the door knob for three hours at a time were probably all related to ASD, caused such an ache inside me as a mother. I cannot describe it.
My husband took a really practical approach and responded by immediately making a list of all the things August could do. I, on the other hand, spent three days in a fog. I could hardly bring myself to get out of bed.
But then it hit me: No matter what happens, and no matter the diagnosis, he will always be our August. He has a spirit and a way about him that is just so awesome, and that is never going to change. It's deep in him. It is him. And it's important that we embrace him for who he is and everything that he will become.
Rituals, rhythms and routines are a big part of August’s life. We try to stick to a pattern for day-to-day happenings. If we know something will be different than our typical routine, we try to prepare him well in advance.
There are certain things he does every day, like wearing a costume or a mask.
He also has a certain order he likes things to be done in. For example, in the morning as he is getting in the car on the way to preschool, he insists that I call down from our kitchen window to tell him that I will be there to pick him up in the afternoon.
He is often focused on small details. He knows, for example, when even the tiniest piece is missing from his Legos.
When he is having a hard time, August will hide, and cover his eyes. Sometimes he'll scratch or hit himself, put his fingers in his mouth and make a series of loud, deep screams.
Sometimes, we'll try and calm him down and offer our support. Other times, he prefers that we step back and let him work through it on his own. We'll let him do that, unless there's the possibility of self-injury, which we try and stop immediately.
If August is uncomfortable, he will wring his hands, cross his fingers or flap his hands.
He often pulls his legs or knees up to his chest for comfort.
And when he is scared or there is a lot of commotion, he will put his fingers in or over his ears. He also sometimes does this to relax.
August is very sensitive to light, sound and different textures. In stores, he often hides in the clothing racks, not because because he's playing "traditional" hide-and-seek, but because the fluorescent lights bother him.
Our youngest son, Finnegan, is almost 3 years old and is not on the autism spectrum. August is an amazing big brother to him. My husband and I were so happy to see how easily August adjusted when his little brother was born. He was so proud.
Even when August was a baby, his senses seemed to be magnified. The slightest thing -- like, a crooked sock -- would make him cry and cry, so he spent most of his first year being held. I like to think that's why he still loves to cuddle with people he trusts.
When August is happy, he often looks up with his head toward the sky and zones out a bit.
The autism spectrum is so wide, and not every person has the same symptoms or markers -- especially children, who are still growing and developing. I think one of the hardest things, as a parent, has been all of the unknowns. On the one side, getting an official diagnosis is so important in terms of getting your child the right therapies and services, and it's also a relief to make sense of certain behaviors. On the other side, it is still a very emotional moment to hear that diagnosis, even if you think you're prepared for it.
At first when you start therapies, there are so many appointments with specialists and doctors, it feels so overwhelming. But then it happens. Almost overnight, your 5-year-old starts saying two to three word sentences. He answers "Mama, I'm here!" after you call his name, and those become the most significant words of your life.
Documenting his rhythm and his routines, as well as his struggles and triumphs -- and then looking through these photos again and again -- has come to mean so much to me. It heals me. It reminds me of how far we have come and that everything our son does has such a purpose to him.
I have found acceptance for my son's diagnosis and an appreciation for the way his mind works so differently from my own. It reminds me of what a wonderful gift he is to me, his family and this world.
My hope, going forward, is that he continues to grow and learn new skills while still remaining the adventurous, sweet, amazing person he is. I also hope there is even more open dialogue about autism, especially between parents and their children. Special needs children are in their classrooms; they're at the store or the park.
Ultimately, my hope for August is that he is treated with respect and empathy.
This photo means so much to me and was a happy accident. I was testing out my new wireless remote for my camera and Auggie came in and sat on my lap. We were laughing and being silly and he was enjoying pressing the button on the remote. When I finally uploaded the images to my computer, this photo stopped me in my tracks. This is one of the only photos I have of him looking directly at the camera -- and I love it. I cried the first time I saw it. I will cherish it always.
Captions have been edited and condensed.