Amy Harmon Follows a Young Autistic Man into the World

Amy Harmon
Amy Harmon Courtesy of Amy Harmon

On September 18, 2011, the front page of the Sunday edition of The New York Times carried a story remarkable to find in any newspaper: a 7,300-word story that was almost all narrative. “Autistic and Seeking a Place in an Adult World,” written by Times staffer Amy Harmon, followed a young autistic man named Justin Canha as he tried to make a transition from high-school student into a semi-independent adulthood. Harmon, who has won two Pulitzer Prizes and a National Academies of Science Communication award for earlier stories, spent a year reporting the story and several weeks wrestling the vast material into form.

Here, Harmon tells David Dobbs how she developed, reported, and wrote this much-acclaimed story. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)


How did you come to this story? Did you conceive it and then sell it to your editors, or did it rise out of story agendas or meetings they (and perhaps you) had?

I had been thinking for a while that it would be interesting look at what was happening to the first generation of children diagnosed with autism at much higher rates as they came of age. I had actually started to follow Justin in early 2010, thinking I’d do a quick profile on his efforts to prepare for life after high school. But I got interrupted by other stories (fortunately, in retrospect). So in the fall, when reporters are invited to pitch enterprise stories for the next year, I wrote a memo called “Autism Comes of Age,” proposing Justin’s story as a narrative, rather than a snapshot, following him through the last year of his high school transition program. It got green-lighted by the editors who decide these things, so in early 2011, I was allowed to pursue it.

You researched the story for a year and published it at 7,500 words—hardly standard for newspapers, even The Times. Did you have to convince them to give you so much time and space, or do they do that regularly (even if not often)? If you had to sell it, how did you do so?

Let’s not get carried away—it was only 7,300! And I did do other stories over the months that I was tracking Justin’s progress and reporting the whole backstory.

But yes, it is rare to get that much space, especially for a story that isn’t big news, like Wikileaks, or an investigation exposing the misdeeds of a politician or corporation. And really, I didn’t set out to write it at that length. In July, I turned in a very rough first draft at 10,000 words, knowing we would need to cut it radically. But then we did cut it, and in the next draft, I put in all the good stuff I’d left out of the first one. And then we cut it again, and I put in more good stuff—and it was getting denser, and more dramatic, in this boiling-down process, but it also just kept coming out to be about 7,500 words.

Finally, in August, Glenn Kramon, the masthead editor in charge of enterprise stories, decided that we needed to show the working version to Jill Abramson, who was taking over as The Times’ executive editor. Because we knew she liked the topic, but what if she hated the form? I was bracing to be told I had to cut it in half. It was the day before I was supposed to go on vacation, and Jill’s verdict would determine whether I needed to work on it from where I was going—to just get it over with and jam it into the paper—or whether we’d be allowed to take a bit more time and run it after Labor Day. And the next morning, I got a one-line email from Glenn saying “Have a good vacation.”

So I think it says a lot about Jill’s commitment to long-form journalism, and of the other editors involved too, Glenn, Rick Berke, the National editor, and the fabulous Barbara Graustark, my direct editor, which I am hugely grateful for, because it does require a big investment and a big gamble. And also, I should say, it speaks to the paper’s interest in experimenting with new forms of storytelling. For the first time, we used what we called “quick links” in this story to embed short videos, pictures, and documents in the actual text of the online version. I think that also helped us get the space, because we could argue it was in the name of showcasing something new. (I loved the new dimension of story added by these links, by the way, and have been asking people to read the story online to get its full impact).

As a story subject, autism has a thousand facets. What led you to focus on one young adult’s transition to adulthood—or was that the idea from the start? And how did you decide on this particular young man, Justin Canha, and his family?

The transition to adulthood of this particular generation was, to me, the news—the social trend that Americans were just beginning to see in their own lives. I think everyone’s read a lot about children with autism at this point, but I was interested in exploring this older group, which had had better therapies and education throughout childhood. I wanted to look both at the challenge they face, with elevated expectations of what their adult lives will hold, and the challenge they pose to a society that values tolerance but often shuns people whose social behavior deviates from the norm.

I wanted to focus on one individual because I really think that narrative stories—with scenes and dialogues and suspense—are more likely to get readers to engage with a subject like this than an expository piece quoting experts and illustrating the points with different anecdotes. I chose Justin because he had all the elements I was looking for: in terms of impairment, he was in the middle of the spectrum; he was in the midst of a well-defined challenge (Would he get a job?); and, crucially, he and his parents and his teachers were willing to let me into their lives for a prolonged period of time.

Was it difficult getting access to Justin and his family? Did you feel you faced unusual informed consent issues, for instance? Likewise, was it hard getting access to the school and its personnel?

I was fortunate in that Justin’s parents and teachers were entirely open to my hanging around. His parents, who are his legal guardians, felt that any story that resulted might help him get an art-related job, even if it showed his more difficult moments. His teachers were doing something that they were proud of, even if it looked messy sometimes.

Justin himself, however, often grew tired of my questions, and he didn’t hesitate to tell me so. In the story, I mention that he would often say “When is the last day” of such-and-such activity that was not his favorite, and “the article” was among those activities. “Amy Harmon,” he would say, “when is the last day of the article?” Or “No more questions please.” Or, to no one in particular, “Why is Amy Harmon here?”

Obviously, given that the whole story was about Justin’s path to self-determination, I tried to be sensitive to what he wanted. But I also felt after months of dipping in and out of his life, I could tell when he was really at his limits and when he was just expressing the frustration of so many of my story subjects, who eventually start to wonder if I will ever finish this thing. The last time I saw Justin before the story ran, he put his arm around me. “Amy,” he said, as though he were instructing me in a social skills class, “you ask too many questions.” But then he proceeded to orchestrate my interview with his friend Paloma. “Amy, could you please come into Paloma’s room, and she will tell you about the pictures of foxes on her wall.” It was like he knew what I needed, and he had decided to hasten it along for all of our sakes.

I’m curious about mechanics. How did you take notes—pen and pad, audio recording, Livescribe notebooks? How did you collect and organize the field notes when you got back to the desk? What software do you use?

Um, software? This is by far the worst part of my process, and I have fantasies that my productivity would double if I just found the right technology. I tried Livescribe on another story but found the pen too uncomfortable. I bring my laptop (a Times-issued ThinkPad X201) with me everywhere and type whenever I can, because recording and transcribing is so time-consuming. Sometimes, if I think I’m listening to a great scene and I might not be getting it all down, I hit record on my MP3 player. But basically I had a folder with several dozen Microsoft Word files that I had named with the people involved and the date.

A problem for me is that I am often alternating between interviews and being a fly on the wall. Both are crucial, and yield very different sorts of information. But I rarely think to switch files when I switch modes of reporting, and that makes it harder to organize later. Also, I had at least a hundred email exchanges with Justin’s mother and teacher and other people in his life that I had not integrated into my notes..

So when it was time to start writing, I took several days to read through everything, flagging scenes and themes that I wanted to be sure to get into the story. Then I scrawled a hand-written outline, which I am sending you as a document despite the mockery it will no doubt elicit from the more technically savvy. Then, because this was a more complicated story than any other I have written, I took a Microsoft online tutorial in how to use the “outline” feature in Word, and I used it to make two different outlines (1 | 2).

How did you organize on a longer-term macro scale? Did you try to make sense of the story thematically and narratively and structurally as you went along, or wait till the end? In what way did organizing the material shape what ended up on the page?

I knew that the basic tension of the story was, “Will Justin get a job?” I knew that I wanted to show the social challenges that he faced, and the challenges people in the community faced in dealing with him as he tried to attain his goal. I was always reporting with an eye to that. But I didn’t realize until near the very end of my reporting that Justin’s journey toward finding a friend, and even an inkling of a girlfriend, was as important as, if not more important than finding a job to what was really the story’s overarching question: Would he be able to live a full adult life?

Seeing that made me re-conceive the whole story—because Justin didn’t realize it, his mother didn’t realize it, and even if Kate, his teacher, did, it was on the back burner for her. I thought if I did it right, if I set it up as though the goal was a job but also made sure to show, almost incidentally throughout the piece, the absence of friendship in his life, that it could be a dramatic moment when the reader realized, as I did, that what he’s really needed all along is not just a job, but a friend. So then I had to go back and report more on the whole friendship theme, and especially spend time with Gower, a young man with a milder form of autism who could, we learn in the second half of the story, turn out to be Justin’s first real friend—if Justin is able to stretch himself in the ways that a genuine friendship requires.

Some people write to find the structure; some plot a structure and then write to fill it. Which is closer to the approach you took here?

I don’t see how people write to find structure! I need an outline. I need to at least have the illusion that I know where I’m going. I spent a long time plotting the structure for this story, so I’d like to say that was my approach. But the truth is, it’s both, and it’s about equal. I somehow always forget, but recognized again this time, that the structure has to be revised as you write. I use outlining strategies from two books that I’ve found really useful as I struggle with structure, Jon Franklin’s Writing For Story and James B. Stewart’s Follow the Story.

You told me earlier that it took you several weeks to write the story—of just writing, if I understood you correctly. Did you slowly write it through, or write a fast ugly draft and then revise? Did you find yourself doing much fill-in reporting as you wrote?

Yes, you understood correctly. Are other people that much faster?!

I was working late nights and weekends on it for several weeks, just desperate to get it done. But I think that this kind of story, where you are only showing, not telling, takes a long time to get right. Because if you do it well, you have the potential to get people to emotionally invest in your characters, to kind of give themselves over to it like a novel. In the best-case scenario, they are caught up in the story and they are learning about a newsworthy social issue, without really noticing it. But if you don’t do it well, then you have nothing. You’re not informing people of anything, and they are bored. Nightmare.

One thing that took a long time was deciding which scenes to use. I had a ton of “color,” but there had to be a bigger reason to use it. It had to speak, always, to the central conflict: Would Justin—and others like him—be able to live a full and somewhat independent life?

Another thing that is so different—and time-consuming—about this kind of writing that I tend to forget in-between stories like this is that it is really all about suspense and foreshadowing. It’s about stealthily preparing the reader for payoffs at the end, and yet getting them to keep reading, wanting to move forward with the basic plot. And setting it up right, at least for me, is tricky.

For instance, high up in the story, I mention that moving, which Justin’s family did several times before he turned 12, took a toll on him. I describe him ticking off the years and places of their moves to himself, and telling his mother to leave him alone when she asks about it. It’s a bit of color, a detail that is hopefully somewhat interesting in its own right. But the real reason that is there is because there is a turning point near the very end of the story, when Justin goes for a walk with Gower, the fellow-student who has emerged as a possible friend, and confides in him that he hates moving. For Justin, whose conversation with everyone around him is almost exclusively limited to a single topic, animation, this is a big deal, and it is the scene that really cements their friendship. I knew I wanted that scene with Gower in the story, but it wasn’t until I wrote it that I realized it would have a lot more resonance if I placed the idea earlier on that Justin hated moving, but that it wasn’t something he chose to talk about.

At least, I hope it did. That’s the kind of thing I’m never sure about, whether all my efforts at foreshadowing actually pay off.

The story carries a subtle but gnawing tension between Justin’s needs and the demands that his accommodation makes on society, such as his fellow students and his employers, along with the societal costs of paying aides and so on. Was that self-conscious, or did it just naturally emerge? Were you ever tempted to treat those more explicitly?

I definitely wanted to highlight that tension, and I chose the scenes and snippets of dialogue with that in mind—so I am thrilled to hear that it came through. And yes, I was very tempted to break away from the narrative to explain things more directly. But I also really hoped readers would get it without my having to spell it out.

When you’re trying to telegraph your message like that, it is especially crucial to have editors who can tell you whether it’s working, because things that seem obvious to you turn out to be totally obscure to others. When my editors didn’t get the point of a particular scene (which was often), I rewrote it till they did. And I was very lucky that they cared enough to read through many drafts till we got it right.

One thing I admire about this story: It’s a newspaper feature, so you’re committed to telling the story through relatively straightforward reporting. Yet you create a sort of lyrical undercurrent that rises from a combination of language and structure—and that a couple times rises to the surface. For example, there’s a scene late in the story where Justin blows by a security monitor in the high school without realizing he’s crossing a boundary; a telling and slightly ominous event just as he’s trying to take his own place in the world. In another case, you have a key phrase—a quote from Justin—that surfaces twice, to great effect. Did those opportunities just pop up as you wrote, or did you recognize them at some point as something you wanted to use and then set them up?

Thanks! I did sometimes wonder whether the story would take a different shape if it were in a magazine. I would have had the option to insert myself in the piece, for instance. But I don’t think I would have wanted to do that.

I knew for sure I wanted to use the scene with the security guard as soon as I witnessed it, because it was such a perfect example of the type of misunderstanding that arises for people whose brains don’t interpret social cues the way most do. It was actually a difficult moment for me as a reporter, because I could so easily have intervened and smoothed Justin’s way at that moment. I was with him, but sort of hanging back behind him, observing, and when the guard looked at me I had to act like I didn’t know what was going on. I wanted to say something, but I knew I needed to just let the scene play out—he wasn’t in danger or anything. So I just followed him back out into the snow.

As for Justin’s repetition of “Don’t be curious, don’t be interested”: I heard him say that so often, especially to his mother, and I wanted to portray that kind of repetition, which is a typical trait of autism. So rather than just say, as I did near the top, that it was a “standard refrain,” I wanted to show it. Again, I wasn’t sure readers would even remember when they got to the second reference that they had seen it before, but I thought it was worth trying.

Openings and endings are challenging. You open with Justin’s job interview and close with him making cookies, seeming to feel both comfortable and confident at one of several jobs he’s holding. Both feel natural. How did you decide on those scenes, and how many other things did you try before you settled on them?

For a long time I had the scene with the security guard at the school as the opening, but at some point I realized it wasn’t crucial to the plot the way the job interview was. So I tried starting with that, and it worked much better. I wrote a few different endings too. I wanted to be sure there was a sense still of future possibility at the end. Justin had come so far. He had a paying job that he enjoyed, that’s so much more than many young adults like him had managed to achieve. Yet we knew he really wanted was to be an animator or illustrator—or at least, to decorate cakes, not just dip cookies. At one point I thought it would be good to hear his voice at the end, talking about the future. But again I have to credit my editors, who sometimes disagreed with each other but in this case both insisted that the image of Justin’s teacher leaving him on his own was the right note to end on. I think action is usually best at the end, if you can manage it, and in that action of the teacher walking out the glass door I hope is contained the sense of all that they achieved, as well as the hope that more is yet to come.

A glimpse behind the scenes:



David Dobbs
David Dobbs

David Dobbs is an author and journalist who writes about science and culture for The New York Times Magazine, the The AtlanticWiredNational Geographic,  and other magazines. His e-book My Mother’s Lover, published by The Atavist, was a #1 Kindle-Single bestseller. He is the author of three other books and writes the Wired blog Neuron Culture. Several of his magazine stories have been included in leading anthologies, including Best American Science Writing 2010 and Best American Sports Writing 2011. Follow David on Twitter @David_Dobbs.

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