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What Rachel SeesAutism, Art, and Meaning-Making

Emily and RachelEmily Terhune ’04 has learned much
in the past year from an unusual teacher

By David Clark ’01
Photos by Owen Carey

Terhune, a studio art graduate, worked on her senior thesis with Rachel, a nine-year-old girl with a high-functioning form of autism known as Asperger’s Syndrome. As part of her thesis, Terhune “translated” photos that Rachel took into paintings. Her work, done under the advisement of Ethan Jackson, Reed’s visiting assistant professor of art, had two objectives: to assist Rachel in making her own art and, at the same time, to better understand the ways in which people perceive their world.

Terhune met Rachel last summer while working at the Autistic Children’s Activity Program (ACAP — “We had a Polaroid camera in the classroom and these kids loved it,” Terhune says. “Rachel would pick up the camera, turn around, and take a picture of something, regardless of what it was, without any sense of composition or selection.”

This unique approach to photography combined with Rachel’s intelligence and communicative personality sparked Terhune’s interest. “It wasn’t her autism that was interesting to me,” Terhune explains. “Her autism made her sense of the world so explicit, and the way that she was trying to understand the world made it very obvious what it is to be human.”

Toward the end of the summer, Terhune approached Rachel and her parents with her idea for a thesis project, which had developed as she observed Rachel’s maturing photographic interests. Rachel is fascinated with history, with her place in time, and the importance of historical facts, so some of their photographic subjects were places of local historical importance in the Portland area: the Odd Fellows Hall, the Peg Tree, and an old iron smelter down by the Willamette River.

In all of these places, Rachel snapped photographs as she had at ACAP, with little regard for composition. One of the shots of the Odd Fellows Hall, for instance, was taken with the camera angled down, pointing at ground cover, a bit of concrete walk and gravel, and a corner of the building.
Polar bear reflectionRachel
Polar bear reflection

Terhune then chose the photos she felt Rachel “had a lot of intention in creating” (based on Rachel’s pointers and especially their interactions during photo outings) and made paintings from them. In representing Rachel’s photos, Terhune says she “tried to accentuate the total environment that I felt she was perceiving,” so that viewers could begin to see how Rachel sees. “It’s not so much looking at the tree as it is taking in everything at once and trying to situate it in the world at large. Even the act of looking at the tree is not really about looking at the tree, but of looking at the tree in history and its place in the world.”

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Reed Magazine August