Anthony Schmidt has been in the news before. The 14-year-old Woodinville teen is a gifted artist whose unique photographs of model cars have been featured by many local news outlets as well as in major national media including People, Car and Driver and NBC News.
His photographs have been featured in art installations, in TikTok and YouTube videos, all over Facebook and other social media platforms. They are available in a coffee-table book, prints and calendar form — a cottage industry born of Anthony’s deep focus, attention to detail, and constant repetition.
Those characteristics are not only the mark of artistic genius, they are also standards of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Anthony is autistic.
A unique perspective
As a mother of an ASD child, I know firsthand the challenges around getting kids on the spectrum to share what’s happening inside their bodies and minds. I am both mesmerized and inspired by Anthony and his family, who saw Anthony’s gift and found a way to bring his work and world to a broad audience.
Where many kids his age might let all that attention go to their heads, Anthony’s autism is part of what keeps his feet on the ground, according to his mom, Ramona Schmidt.
“There are a lot of positive traits to autism, one of them is that he doesn’t really have a big ego,” Ramona says. “It’s the opposite, really. I find kids with autism struggle with self-esteem and even self-awareness, so there will be no ‘celebrity big ego’ effect here. He’s a bit oblivious to all of that, he’s just happy people are enjoying his art and he wants to do more for them.”
Art as compass
Most people on the autism spectrum face lifelong sensory-input challenges. Certain textures, smells or chaotic environments can send a child or adult with ASD into a fit of panic and lashing out. Anthony has learned to navigate such spectrum idiosyncrasies through his unique art-making process.
Others on the spectrum might use self-soothing (called stimming) behaviors like rocking, repetitive hand flicking or, in my own son’s case, taking long walks to manage anxiety, discomfort and feelings of overstimulation. For Anthony Schmidt, the hyper-focus on art is his balm .Headphones help. They block out unnecessary sounds that might otherwise agitate him. Where walks bring my son to calm and peace, Anthony’s model-building and photography make navigating the rest of life easier.
365 days of practice
“Anthony takes photos every day without exception,” says Ramona. “People with autism like routines and photography is on his list of things to accomplish every day. As far as stimming, Anthony has never had a noticeable stim, repetitive or unusual movement, although he does like to jump a lot on the trampoline so I guess you’d consider that a stim or a sensory break.”
I’m fascinated by Anthony and his art for this reason: The autistic mind can seem impenetrable and chaotic to neurotypical people.
I remember numerous times throughout my son’s childhood when I wondered about his inner world. I wondered if, in the wide imagination of that world, he was lonely. I’ve heard from both my son and other parents with ASD kids that their minds are constantly processing and digesting and that even the smallest life detail is very “loud” in their heads.
Yet, Anthony offers a different possibility: that the inner worlds of ASD children can and do include places of peace and calm.
A picture of hope
Anthony’s ability to communicate stillness amidst the deluge of internal and external noise that people with ASD experience makes him and his art extraordinary to me. His images portray a surprisingly peaceful world. And that gives me hope not only for my son, but for all people on the spectrum.
Kids on the autism spectrum often land on a singular — in some cases obsessive — interest and then develop a mastery of that one topic, practice or idea. Mastery does not mean savantism – the majority of people on the spectrum do not exhibit “Rain Man”-style genius. By mastery, I mean a single-minded intense study in order to know the details of every aspect and angle of their interest and, as in our family’s case, to create a whole inner and outer world around that interest.
When fixations lead to isolation
My son’s fixations have, at times, been very isolating, locking out friends and family members who want to share his interests or spend time with him. For example, at one point my son was obsessed with The Incredibles. He needed to know every detail of every character’s backstory. After a year of this fixation, I was exhausted. He would play for hours in his own world while I stood by watching and wishing he would let me in, even if just for a little while.
By contrast, Anthony has figured out how to draw us into his world. His photos capture light and texture in unique and illuminating ways – they reflect the way he experiences light and texture. They reveal how a person with autism takes in the tiny details and scale within a larger and often overwhelming world. In this way, the photos feel like windows into this ASD teen’s inner landscape, a hint at his inner world. It is a sweet and beautiful view.
Photos that transport the viewer
As I moved through the images on Anthony’s website, I felt transported into this young man’s inner space and into other eras. I could hear Elvis and Little Richard playing on the radio in the background of one photo. The wind was in my hair, and I was speeding along a river’s edge in my shiny 1942 Ford pickup truck in another. For a moment, I was in 1950.
I believe this might be one of the reasons that Anthony’s art is remarkable and appreciated. It offers reprieve from the chaos of everyday life in 2022. And hopefully, it increases viewers’ understanding of why people on the spectrum rely on stimming behaviors to cope. These images provide us with a bit of escape.
When I asked Anthony why he enjoys this type of artistic expression, his reply was simple: “I don’t know. I just do.” And that makes perfect sense to me.
For more information about Autism Spectrum Disorder, check out the University of Washington’s Autism Center.
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