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Justin Canha, a young man living with autism, was recently profiled by New York Times reporter Amy Harmon. She details Justin’s life, with special attention given to his artistic abilities. Photo by Justin Canha from Justin Canha Art.

A recent New York Times profile on a young man expanded my definition of interactivity and provided a unique glimpse into the lives of individuals and families affected by autism. After reading about the piece at the Open Notebook, a place for writers to digest and reflect on their work, I noticed author Amy Harmon uses the term “quick links” to describe a unique aspect of her approach — one where she sprinkles multimedia throughout the article to show, not tell, this young man’s story. The links range from photos and videos to audio slideshows on her subject. The term must be relatively new since the results from a Google search yielded descriptions of stainless steel.

If you take the time to read the 7,000 word article (it’s a doozy, but a darn good one), you’ll encounter a video at the top of the page providing an intro and summary of the author’s time with Justin. She documents his “coming of age” and struggle to gain independence as an adult living with autism. He’s about to leave his school program and wade into the uncertain waters employment and perhaps independent living. Five graphs down, you see your first quick link that opens up a video of Justin telling the camera about his family. Interestingly, the player expands over the text and collapses right back where it came from. The video also gives the viewer a sense of Justin’s mannerisms and personality, which are difficult to convey in plain copy without extensive character development.

Other quick links are slice-of-life videos scattered about the article, some revealing family home videos and others showing Justin’s interactions with others around him. If there’s one thing to say about this style of reporting, it’s certainly intimate. Justin and his family left an enormous hole for Harmon to occupy, which allows us to share experiences with Justin, not read about them. He lives, eats and breathes art and animation, and the article reflects that by quick linking to his great work (here and here). Even by looking at his website, I’m deeply impressed and humbled by his artistic ability, which has earned him awards and helped him sell projects for good money on occasion.

Another interesting choice the author made was using every bit of interactivity she could when discussing autism. When talking about therapies and options for the condition, she hyperlinks to peer-reviewed research to back her claims. I imagine she went to these lengths to battle misinformation that vaccines cause autism or that special diets can help people living with it. Writer Seth Mnookin also puts many of these claims to rest in a recent book with similar evidence.

Overall, I think this was a perfect piece for this type of adventurous interactivity. It gave us a perspective and road map we wanted to partake in.

What do you think? Did the quick links enhance the story? Or were they not as effective at times? Any thoughts?


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About Me

Marianne is a science communicator working in Madison, Wis.