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October Editors’ Roundtable No. 1: The New York Times on autism and adulthood

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Our first October Rountable looks at “Autistic and Seeking a Place in an Adult World,” by Amy Harmon. Harmon tells the story of Justin Canha, a 21-year-old illustrator hoping to live on his own but facing challenges both predictable and surprising in that quest. The story ran on September 18 on page 1 of the New York Times.

Jacqui Banaszynski
Knight Chair professor, Missouri School of Journalism

On “gold coins” and making words work:

As I read Amy Harmon’s richly packed piece, I was put in the mind of Pulitzer Prize winning author Tracy Kidder. Harmon’s work has a similar deceptive simplicity – straightforward, non-gussied prose that is actually the scaffolding that holds up deep, deep reporting. She has learned so much in the course of that reporting that she doesn’t have to strain her narrative; she doesn’t overexplain, overattribute, overdefine or overdress. She has earned the right to compress tons of tricky emotional and scientific and economic information into direct statements that demand trust by virtue of their authority.

But Kidder’s work is usually book length. Harmon is tackling as much at magazine length – what would essentially be a single chapter of that book. So she really has to use that compression and voice of authority to maximum effect, and then make crucial choices about the scenes she chooses to center her story and draw the reader forward. As much as she leaves me wanting to know more (the ultimate compliment to a writer), she also succeeds in drawing me ever forward.

The key to that success in a moment.  First a short digression:

I said this could be a book.  If you study Harmon’s piece, you’ll find multiple story (or chapter) possibilities embedded there. She could easily peel out separate and fascinating pieces connected to the core issue of autism: science, treatment, cost, education, the toll on families, erratic social support and more. Many reporters miss the opportunity to find many, many stories in a single issue. If you get in the habit of looking at the various content chunks of a complex story, you open the door to many other stories, each with its own center. That’s a valuable skill for a staff reporter trying to own a beat or for a freelancer trying to find a new angle to pitch.

Now back to our regular programming.

Of all the things we could study here, I want to focus on “gold coins.” The Poynter Institute’s Roy Peter Clark includes it as one of his 50 essential “Writing Tools.” It’s a way to keep placing little gems along a reader’s path to keep them moving forward. Think of it as a literary scavenger hunt: You give the reader a clue worth pursuing and send them on the hunt; then just when they might be getting tired or frustrated, you drop in another juicy clue. Or maybe it’s like cairns on a long wilderness hike. Or a Hershey’s Kiss every 30 minutes on the treadmill. You don’t do that to be a tease, but to pace the journey. The sparkling moments – the gold coins of character, action, dialog, surprise, emotion – light the way ahead, reward readers when they get there and encourage them to keep going with a promise: another coin lies ahead.

In Harmon’s dense-packed piece (lots and lots of information pressed into strongly structured sentences and paragraphs), she regularly offers such gems. Mostly commonly they come in the voice of Justin’s signature dialog (not quotes: dialog). But other things sparkle along the way: the father’s very human frustration; a peek into Justin’s sketchbook; moments that show the equally relentless drive of Justin’s mother and his teacher; the specific techniques used to calm Justin down, and that wonderful little touch of Justin taking the young lady’s hand.

In part this is about structure. Harmon chapters a complex piece by scene and topic, then weaves in moments in each chapter (usually at the end) to put a bow on that subject and entice me to go on to the next part.

But it’s also about spooling out the good stuff with patience and purpose. Instead of going for overarching gothic drama, Harmon offers small moments and scenes throughout her piece, helping me stay with her (and Justin) through a difficult ride.

(For another great read on the challenges of the autism spectrum, check out “A Brother’s Story.”  Cristof Traudes was a senior at the Missouri School of Journalism when he told his brother’s story. Full disclosure: I was his editor.  But the work is all his, and his family’s.)

Chris Hunt
Assistant managing editor, Sports Illustrated

On imagery the complements the story:

I can’t think of another article that benefits so much from its multimedia elements. Often these extras give you more but don’t take you deeper. The ones in this story do both. The piece is so engrossing and affecting that I wanted to learn as much as I could about Justin, his condition and Kate’s work.

The videos and additional photos and articles more than satisfied my curiosity. It was fascinating to see and hear Justin – his voice, his affect, his interactions with others – and to study the photo gallery of his art. I was also struck by the affection and tension between his devoted, exhausted parents. Amy Harmon’s beautiful narrative was complete in its own right, but the multimedia elements made it even richer.

Tom Huang
Sunday and enterprise editor, The Dallas Morning News

On unearthing and revealing character through indirect means:

How often do we feel stymied when we’re writing a story and our central character can’t reflect on or articulate his or her experience in any great depth? Amy Harmon shows us how to overcome that challenge as she profiles Justin Canha, the high school student with autism. Harmon reveals Justin’s personality by using:

Drawings. Harmon takes advantage of Justin’s passion for drawing cartoons – his creativity and feelings emerge from his comic strips. When a teacher takes away his markers, Justin draws himself “crying on a long, winding road home.” We even get a sense of his wicked sense of humor when Harmon details another one of his strips:

And with new computer software, he developed his own cartoon animations and a comic strip called “Jickey and Fanky” about a fox and a wolf that sometimes took on a decidedly personal twist. In “Jickey Goes to Behavior Therapy,” for instance, Dr. Fanky P. Wolf gets his eyes gouged out by his patient, Jickey, whom he is prodding to make eye contact.

Cartoon characters. Justin is an expert on Disney cartoon characters. Harmon notices that he is fascinated with Pinocchio. She points to the story of Pinocchio as a fitting parallel to Justin’s journey – and his desire to belong with the other kids.

“Pinocchio,” he informed anyone who asked, “is about a wooden puppet who was brought to life by a blue fairy and goes through mischief and mayhem so he can be approved to be a real boy.”

If he recognized himself in Pinocchio’s classic quest for acceptance, Justin did not say it in so many words.

Dreams. Justin reveals his dreams twice in Harmon’s story, and they offer the reader a glimpse into his fears and anxieties. When his father returns from a fishing trip, Justin draws one of his nightmares: “his own body on a plate, a fish above him with knife and fork, ready to dig in.” In another instance:

[He] woke his mother in the night, crying. He had had a nightmare, about “parents’ death and my death,” he told her.

It was, his mother thought, the first time he had registered what it would mean to truly be on his own.

Dialogue. Harmon uses dialogue to show how Justin interacts with others. For example, in one scene, we see how insistent Justin is about handing people Christmas cards. But then we see him soften as he realizes that not everyone celebrates Christmas.

“I’m not allowed to say ‘Merry Christmas,’ Marilyn,” Justin said abruptly to one of the librarians, thrusting a card at her. “So, happy holidays.”

He turned to walk away as she started to thank him.

“Justin,” Ms. Stanton-Paule said with unusual sharpness, “I think Marilyn was speaking.”

He stopped.

“I appreciate that you said ‘happy holidays,’ Justin,” the librarian said calmly, “because I celebrate Hanukkah.”

“Oh,” he said, as though it had never occurred to him. “Happy Hanukkah then.”

Then, in an exchange between Justin and his mother, we gain insight into his impatience to be on his own, away from his family.

“Mom, when is the last day of Dr. Selbst?” Justin asked on the weekly trips to the cognitive behavior therapist.

“Well, Justin, what’s the goal?” his mother asked. “Why do we go to Dr. Selbst?”

“Independence,” Justin sighed, turning on classical music on his iPod and settling in for the ride.

Observation. Harmon knows that an interview with Justin will only get her so far. So she spends a lot of time watching what Justin does. She undoubtedly has several notebooks full of observations. She distills the information into paragraphs like this one:

But more prosaic lessons arose at every turn: when he should present money at the pizza place (not until after he ordered), how close to stand to the person using the weight machine he wanted at the gym (not so close), what to say when he saw a co-worker drinking a Coke (probably not “Coca-Cola is bad for your bones”).

Poster. Harmon uses the poster that Justin presents at a conference to crystallize his hopes for his future, as well as his doubts about finding a partner.

On the lower steps of the poster, he had written “learn how to take the bus.” At the top, he had drawn himself at a drafting table, in a jacket and tie, with a red-brick apartment building. “Famous animator-illustrator” he had written, and, on the step marked 2014, “move to the apartment.”

In large blue letters, he had also written the word “Single.” “Marriage,” he said, drawing out his words in his exaggerated style, “is too comp-li-cat-ed.”

By portraying Justin in a multidimensional way, Harmon shows us how challenging it will be for him to transition into adult life, and that makes us want to learn more about programs that might help him do so. By the end of the story, it’s hard not to care about Justin and wonder what the future holds for him.

For more from Amy Harmon on this piece, read the Storyboard Q-and-A with her. For full bios of the Roundtable editors, see our introductory post.

Is there a story you’d like the Roundtable to tackle? If so, you can send a link to us at contact_us@niemanstoryboard.org.




One comment

  1. posted October 25, 2011 at 1:49 am | permalink

    Amy Harmon did a great job.

    I have had a book proposal out on the big picture of adult autism for three years with no takers. Can anyone explain? Please feel free to do so through my website email address. Or on Facebook. Constructive criticism accepted graciously. (I swear).

    I am an author and award-winning journalist with many decades of varied experience — books published by Scribner and Bantam Dell at Random House, covering stories for major publications on many issues at home and globally. I applaud the Times for allocating resources necessary for Amy Harmon to explore this.

    Yes, I have an affected son. He is non-verbal. To get into the mind of that subject you have to have lived the life in some fashion. You live it as a parent — or you move in with the family. And then you call on your skills as a journalist to look at the big picture as an observer as well. As an observer of many different iterations of Autism. Autism is a spectrum.

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  1. [...] Skip to content AboutNieman FoundationContact UsNarrative DigestNotable NarrativesEssays on CraftSubscribeTwitter « October Editors’ Roundtable No. 1: The New York Times on autism and adulthood [...]

  2. [...] of existence, looks a lot like a virus gene. Good writers litter their pieces with these “gold coins” – unobtrusive, fascinating gems that keep readers hooked. Just as their attention starts [...]

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