Erin and Marcus share a moment at school before she leaves his classroom at Middle Creek Elementary in Apex, N.C. He always gets upset when she leaves him in the morning.

The House That Autism Built

A photographer follows one family’s experience


Carolyn Van Houten immerses herself in every story she photographs, and she has an uncanny way of immediately earning someone’s trust. When she met Erin O’Loughlin from her series, The House Autism Built, the connection was instant.

“It was one of those things when you meet someone, and you know that they understand, and they know that you understand,” Van Houten says.

The O’Loughlin Family lives in suburban Cary, NC on a row of similarly built houses, but nothing is similar about the O’Loughlin Family. Erin said, “Marcus and his autism is all my children have really ever known. Autism has always been a part of our lives so its just a part of who they are.”

Her work with the O’Loughlins focuses on Erin’s son, Marcus O’Loughlin, who was diagnosed with autism when he was three. From day one, Van Houten was shooting everything: morning, bath time, bedtime.

Her relationship with the family is going on two years now. Though she was gone more than a year interning, she kept in touch and has been working on their story ever since she returned to North Carolina. She hopes to continue the story as long as she can.

“I was nervous, but I fell right back into it,” Van Houten says. “It was like a flow. It’s even more intimate now after time apart.”

The project is one reason why Van Houten was announced this week as one of Magnum’s 3o under 30. It’s the latest is an impressive line of accolades for such a young shooter.

Marcus gives up trying to count sequentially in class. Middle Creek is a typical elementary school, but also offers autism-specific special education classrooms.

But before she was even a “real” photographer, Van Houten was almost an astrophysicist. Halfway through her sophomore year as an astrophysics student at Chapel Hill, the work started to get to her. In a fateful phone call with her father, he pointed out that for her, the most interesting part of astrophysics was the study of light. This made sense since her real passion was photography. He encouraged her to consider that.

“I had fooled around with a camera like every teenage girl does, taking photos of abandoned buildings and whatnot,” Van Houten says.

Jordan, left, was extremely enthusiastic about the story written in the Cary News on her mom’s efforts to start 3 Irish Jewels Farm, an assisted living farm for adults with autism. Erin is still in the process of raising money, but she said, “I want to guarantee a future for Marcus and the farm is my way of doing that.”

Neither of them knew it at the time, but that conversation would lead to Van Houten being considered one of the best international photographers in the world, according to Magnum’s which was announced this week.

In college, taking photos was something Van Houten did to de-stress, but the idea that it could be a career path hadn’t occurred to her.

Erin said, “I often try to think what it must be like in his little brain and I envision fireworks, just fireworks going off — I don’t know what its like in there, but it must be like living with constant noises and sounds and explosions going off all the time.”

She was already at one of the most well-respected photo schools in the country when she spoke with her father. Coincidentally, the photo program is in the building right behind the physics department.

“When I looked at schools, it was in the back of my head,” she says. “I knew UNC had good photo program, I just didn’t think I would be in it.”

“The plain honest truth is that the plain everyday run of the mill common person is given a child with special needs. At the end of the day children with autism are not given to strong special people, we are made strong and we are made special by having to raise that child with special needs and, yes, we are very often given more than we can handle,” Erin said.

With her father’s blessing, she enrolled in her first photography class, Intro to Photojournalism, and changed her major within a week.

Since that time, Van Houten has held internships at The Chicago Tribune, The Tampa Bay Times, The Dubois County Herald, and The White House. She also cleaned up at the 2013 and 2014 Hearst Photojournalism awards, and in 2013, received second place in College Photographer of the Year.

“We know in our hearts that Marcus is going to need assistance for the rest of his life,” Erin said. “Theres still this hole in our community and our society that exists for adults with autism. It does not stop at age 18, its not something you grow out of.”

Van Houten would still rather talk about her story subjects, like the O’Loughlins, than the accolades. She still keeps in touch with most of the people in her projects.

“Telling other people’s stories while trying to live your own story is hard,” she says.

The three O’Loughlin children play at the end of their street. Their mom said, “I want them to always know I love them for who they are, for their very existence of being here. They dont need to be Marcus’ caretaker. They dont need to be strong for us. They dont need to be good girls and good boys because we have a lot on our plates. No, they just need to be typical kids.”

Van Houten graduated in December and is now a staffer at the San Antonio Express-News in Texas.

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All photos by Carolyn Van Houten


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