Editor won award for the story no one else seemed to want

Tara Haelle

About Tara Haelle

Tara Haelle (@TaraHaelle) is AHCJ's medical studies core topic leader, guiding journalists through the jargon-filled shorthand of science and research and enabling them to translate the evidence into accurate information.

“For a boy who needs routine, this day is off to a bad start. It’s early, just before 8 a.m., and unseasonably warm for June. Kyle, 17, has been up since 6:20 a.m., which isn’t all that unusual. But already, enough has happened to throw him off balance.”

So begins the story about Kyle, a nonverbal autistic teenager in Maryland who receives electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) for autism. Kyle’s experience introduces readers to electroconvulsive therapy through the expert reporting of Apoorva Mandavilli, editor in chief of Spectrum and First Place winner of the 2016 AHCJ Awards for Excellence in Health Care Journalism in Consumer/Feature (small) category.

Her story, “How ‘shock therapy’ is saving some children with autism,” was challenging and controversial from the get-go since the treatment she reported on has attracted such controversy, confusion, misunderstanding and vitriol over the years. In fact, Mandavilli tells us in her “How I Did It,” one reason she ended up reporting the story was that she could not entice any of her writers to do so.

“The topic was too controversial and the numbers of treated kids too small, so no one really wanted to touch it,” she writes. “But I loved the story idea and worked hard to create time to report and write it.”

Reporting on ECT and autism was challenging not only because the subject matter was difficult and controversial but also because most of the medical literature on ECT for autism is composed of case reports, generally recognized as low on “strength of evidence” scales. But these case studies were tremendously useful for Mandavilli, functioning much like interviews in and of themselves, she explains. A related challenge was the communication obstacles with Kyle given his nonverbal status.

Read more about what it took for Mandavilli to report the story, balancing the need to objectively, appropriately, thoroughly cover the subject matter while earning the trust of the physicians and families she consulted and met with.

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