‘Likely Friendships’ captures sweet bonds children with autism form with pals

Special photography project shows that all sorts of children can be helped to socialize and communicate more successfully.
Nigel Odom, 3, who has autism, once struggled to play and socialize with his sister, Sydney. Since attending a preschool program at the Marcus Autism Center in Atlanta, he has become so social he’s known as the “mayor of preschool.”Courtesy of Ashley Berrie Photography / Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta

When Nigel Odom was about a year old, he avoided eye contact and shied away other children so he could play alone. If he approached other kids, he didn’t quite understand how to play with them. That’s because Nigel has autism, and socializing can feel challenging for him.

“He would definitely play on his own and be in his own world,” his mom, Jenny Odom of Atlanta, told TODAY Parents.

Nigel, now 3, was diagnosed at a young age, which allowed him to start early intervention programs. But it was the Preschool Programat the Marcus Autism Center of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta that helped Nigel transform from a shy, uncomfortable child to “the mayor of preschool.” His mother never imagined he would be so engaged.

“He and his sister have been wrestling together, which is huge,” she said. “In the past few weeks, he started taking me by the hand and saying, ‘Come here, Mommy, I want to show you this. I want to play with you.’”

Odom also loves that her son is so empathetic and outgoing that she no longer needs to worry about him bonding with others. Many parents of children with autism worry that their children will be socially isolated, but the programs at Marcus help them understand how to make friends.

“He is learning a lot about coping skills,” Odom said. “The goal is to prepare him for kindergarten but it obviously prepares him for life.”

Nigel and others who attend Marcus Autism Center programs participated in a photography project called “Likely Friendships” showing the relationships they have fostered since their interventions. The images prove that neurodiverse people develop close friendships just like their peers.

“We have seen such growth,” Odom said. “He’s just creative and goofy and musically inclined and so much fun.”

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