‘Have You Been Writing This All Along?’

Many people have asked where the idea for Following Ezra came from.

“Have you been writing this all along?” they ask.

Yes and no.

Since a few months before Ezra was diagnosed with autism at age three, I’ve been taking notes. Not for a book, but to figure this thing out, to try to understand his mind, how we could help him, what to expect—and what the future might bring.

Many of those notes took the form of e-mails I wrote to myself, to Shawn, my wife, to my parents and in-laws and others who cared about Ezra. (Age 7: “Last night I was making waffles with a new waffle iron. He kept grabbing letters from the fridge and taking them into the playroom. When I went to tell him the waffles were ready, he had spelled out ‘dinosaur’ on the train table. ‘Yeah! I spelled “dinosaur!” That’s how you spell “dinosaur.” ’ “)

All the while, I was working as a journalist, writing human-interest stories for People magazine. I had the privilege of creating stories about some remarkable (and, occasionally, notorious) individuals and families for an audience of some 40 million readers. And then I’d go home and watch our own little dramas play out. And send my e-mails.

After a while, I felt like a foreign correspondent or an anthropologist, reporting on the customs and practices in an exotic land.

(Age 6. “Will only eat a banana one way: whole. I open, pull the peel halfway down, hand it to him. If it breaks before he eats it, he screams: ‘You broke it!’” )

Looking back, the first year or two I was clearly reflecting the sense of crisis Shawn and I were feeling. Parents of young children with autism—or even with differences that have not yet been formally diagnosed—hear a lot about the importance of “early intervention”. I remember reading and being told about how the brain is more malleable in those early years. So we felt pressure to learn all we could and take action before…it was too late.

Too late for what, I’m not sure now. (And it turns out the brain keeps growing and changing for many years.)  But all along, I was noticing not just Ezra’s challenges, but also how truly extraordinary he was, the astonishing ways his mind worked.

(Age 8: “We were reading a book that mentioned a woodpecker. I asked if he had ever seen a woodpecker. ‘No. But I heard one, on a hike on November 29, 2003. It was a Friday.’”)

It’s difficult (or at least it was for me) to live with someone like that and not be constantly taking note of the remarkable things that come out of his mouth.

Years later, when I was leaving my job at People after a dozen years, a colleague, Patrick Rogers, asked me about my plans. I told him that I might do some kind of writing about my experiences with Ezra.

“Why don’t you do that for us?” he asked.

It had never crossed my mind in all those years that my own family might make a good story in People. But I took him up on the offer and wrote a piece about how Ezra and I had bonded over our frequent visits to the Los Angeles Zoo, a place he valued for its order, predictability, and access to otters (among other things). The result was a story called “Finding My Son at the Zoo” that ran in People in April of 2007 along with some wonderful photos by the very talented Eugene Richards. (For obscure reasons, the story is not available online, but a Google search turns up a link to a Chinese site with the wonderful photos.)

As it turned out, the story received a greater response than any of the scores of stories I had written in People over the years, and it became the seed of the idea for Following Ezra.

Have I been writing this all along? Yes and no.

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