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Faces of ACEing Autism Palm Beach

Michael Whitaker | Florida, United States

Organization: J. Michael Whitaker Photography

I typically do not produce color photograph because I believe color distracts from what I see as the essence of my photographs. However, color is essential for this photograph because it helps communicate the intense beauty of the International Polo Club, where ACEing Autism Palm Beach was located during the 2013-2014 season. The significant stature and status of the International Polo Club on the world equestrian stage speaks volumes about individuals associated with IPC management and operations deciding to host ACEing Autism Palm Beach.

Shafali Jeste, a child neurologist focused on developmental disorders, and Richard Spurling, a tennis professional with an MBA in entrepreneurship, merged their interests and talents to create ACEing Autism, an organization that provides tennis lessons for children with autism spectrum diagnoses. The program is designed to meet the needs of children and youth with a variety of cognitive, social and physical abilities.

The national headquarters of ACEing Autism is located in Los Angeles, CA, USA, with individual programs in thirty-two locations across the U.S. This photo project focuses on the 2013-2014 season of ACEing Autism Palm Beach at the International Polo Club in Wellington, FL, USA.

By design, the Palm Beach program is flexible and can be modified based on each individual’s skill level and/or favorite activities. Utilizing the skills of volunteer tennis professional, adult volunteers, students volunteers and participant family members, the program focuses on a range of fine and gross-motor skills, and social skills.

 I am indebted to Richard Spurling, Executive Director of ACEing Autism, and Paul Hope, Sports Club Director at the International Polo Club and tennis pro volunteer for ACEing Autism, for facilitating the logistics of my approval to photograph this project. My respect for both individuals is monumental.

I owe special thanks to Linda Liles Pugliese for making the introduction that enabled the birth of this project. Linda and I were members of a very small high school graduating class in Memphis, TN, USA, in the previous century and re-connected in recent years due to our shared passion for art. (Linda is a "marble carver.")

When Linda learned my grandson had an autism spectrum diagnosis and that we had relocated to Vero Beach, FL, USA, she introduced me to her daughter, Lisa Pugliese, Director of South Florida ACEing Autism and ACEing Autism Palm Beach, and, as they say, the rest is history. In the truest sense, Linda Pugliese made this project possible. Accordingly, I genuinely am grateful the world in which I live is so small and that friendship survives more years than I am willing to admit.

Finally, I do not possess sufficient skills to adequately express the extent of my appreciation and respect for Lisa Pugliese. Thus, please let it suffice for me simply to say, “Lisa is a wonder to behold!"



Maxwell, my 17-year-old grandson, was diagnosed with autism fourteen years ago. In the time since, my heart has been touched by autism and my world profoundly enhanced by Max being a part of my daily life. Thus, it gives me great pleasure and satisfaction to present this project, which teams my passion for photography with my passion for advocating for individuals with autism spectrum diagnoses.

A primary purpose of my photography is to celebrate the wonderment of individuality. I am very pleased the images of this project not only reflect the wonderment of individuals with ASD but also that of the volunteers and family members making extraordinary efforts to support the children and youth in these photos.

Whenever I undertake a “faces” project my hope is I will capture within my images the beauty and wonderment of my first-hand experiences. As a result of my personal way of viewing the world, in these faces I see multiple types and layers of beauty and wonderment. I will have achieved the underpinning goal of my project if these images influence and enable viewers to more readily appreciate and respect not only individuals with ASD but also those who are making significant contributions of time, talent and/or energies on behalf of individuals with ASD or other special needs.

Finally, in my role as photographer I am indebted to Richard T. Hurst, who first was my photography teacher at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts before becoming my mentor and friend. It was Rich who introduced me to the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson and his concept of “the decisive moment,” which I endlessly pursue with my camera because I believe it is in the decisive moment that the wonderment of individuality is most readily identified and captured.




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