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Autistic photographers share their cherry blossom visions

Thursday - 4/10/2014, 5:29am  ET

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Ian Paregol, executive director of Community Services for Autistic Adults and Children, helps autistic photographer Joe Myers snap a photo. (WTOP/Alicia Lozano)
  • Gallery: (5 images)

WASHINGTON -- The group of five photographers snapping away at the Tidal Basin Wednesday afternoon looked like every group of people admiring the cherry blossoms.

But these men see the world differently. They are autistic.

The photographers are members of the In-Focus Project, which teaches autistic men and women to run their own online photography store. They learn to shoot and edit, post their pictures to a web store and then package and ship them to buyers.

In-Focus started in 2008 when Ian Paregol, executive director of Community Services for Autistic Adults and Children, in Montgomery Village, Md., which oversees the program, and Craig Pardini, director for building facilities, administration and IT at CSAAC, teamed up to teach a weekly photography class at the center. Because people with autism are often better able to express themselves visually, Paregol and Pardini hoped this would help stimulate and challenge their adult clients.

"We like to do this to help build their communications skills, for one, because they're interacting with a lot of different people during the walk and also to enhance their photographic skills," Pardini says.

"This gives them an opportunity to share what they are seeing and what's in their mind."

The photographers fanned out near the Thomas Jefferson Memorial on a peak cherry blossom day. Some took photos of tourists; others, of the trees. One photographer particularly enjoyed taking pictures of his friends taking pictures.

Caregiver Agyemang Nkrumah works closely with James Lane, one of the photographers busy snapping away. Nkrumah says Lane loves photography, and the two often wander near the CSAAC campus, taking pictures and completing assignments for In-Focus.

"He's very good," Nkrumah says. "If you give James the chance, he can take 150 pictures within 10 minutes."

Surrounded by his classmates, Lane practically skips from shot to shot, showing his instructors and aides all the photos he has taken. His favorite is one of his classmate intently pointing his camera toward a cherry blossom tree.

"This certainly gives them a little bit of self-esteem," Paregol says. "But it also gives them a chance to connect with the community."

Most of the photographers aren't shy about meeting strangers interested in their work or showing off their latest accomplishments. Joe Myers is especially proud of floral shots.

His favorite part of this assignment?

"They smell nice," he says.

Photos from the In-Focus project can be purchased online and will benefit CSAAC. Click through the gallery to see example of their work.

And click here to visit the online store.

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