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The Reason I Jump, by Naoki Higashida, translated by KA Yoshida and David Mitchell, Sceptre, RRP£12.99, 192 pages
Naoki Higashida is a young Japanese man who suffers from autism and cannot really speak. He wrote this book when he was 13, by using a cardboard alphabet grid and pointing to each letter in turn.
The effort must have been gargantuan, and Higashida’s imaginative leap has been even greater. This is a guide to what it feels like to be autistic. He has had to see himself from the outside looking in, which is particularly hard for autistic people to do. (Indeed, one of the defining characteristics of autism is the inability to distinguish between your own and other people’s viewpoint.)
The book has an illuminating, heartfelt introduction by the novelist David Mitchell. He and his Japanese wife Keiko Yoshida have an autistic son and they originally translated the book for their own personal use, and to help their son’s carers and other friends.
I approached The Reason I Jump with some trepidation. As a reviewer, how can you possibly criticise a book spelt out letter by letter by a disabled child? And how could the book not be bad? Altered states of consciousness – think of dreams and drug experiences – are such literary banana skins. Only the very deft can manage this.
And yet Higashida, against all these odds, has succeeded. In Mitchell and Yoshida’s translation, he comes across as a thoughtful writer with a lucid simplicity that is both childlike and lyrical. His mind is subtle and ingenious. He has a quirky sense of humour and a line in elliptical fantasy.
The book is divided into short chapters mostly based on the questions people ask. Why do autistic children love to spin round and round? Why do they flap their hands in front of their eyes? Some of Higashida’s answers are mystifying: “When I am not moving, it feels like my soul is detaching itself from my body.” Others are heart-rending: “When I’m jumping, it’s like my feelings are going upward to the sky. Really, my urge to be swallowed up by the sky is enough to make my heart quiver.”
Strange things go on in his mind. Normal mental filtering systems don’t work – he cannot easily order thoughts and is sidetracked by jumbled detail. Bad memories flood into his mind as fresh as when they happened.
Meanwhile, perception is confusing, overwhelming, too intense. Higashida suffers from sensory overload – as if reality were a television with the volume too loud and the colours too bright. (This, he explains, accounts for the hand-flapping – the movement breaks up the intensity and brightness of what is seen.)
So his world is hard, full of fear and unimaginable pain. For Mitchell this realisation “administered the kick I need to stop feeling sorry for myself, and start thinking how much tougher life was for my son”. Certainly it is not reassuring reading for any parent. My own “kick” moment came when I read Higashida’s description of how very soothed and comforted he feels by endlessly lining up his toys or watching the same television advertisement a thousand times over (he likens the ads to “being visited by old and dear friends”). This makes me feel bad about all the years of draconian behavioural therapy I put my own young son through when we prohibited nearly all his repetitive play. For a neurotypical boy it would have been the equivalent to shredding his teddy.
Does this book tell us something new? I believe it does. There is already some vague public awareness of the very different and special thought processes experienced by autistic people and Higashida illustrates this wonderfully, as does Mitchell in his introduction. What comes as more of a surprise is Higashida’s awareness of the people around him.
Autism is usually thought of as utterly solipsistic. Yet the author repeatedly makes it clear how much he needs those he loves. “Please never give up on us”, he implores. He is mortified by how his behaviour annoys others.
This is the most important and revelatory aspect of The Reason I Jump. Higashida is living proof of something we should all remember: in every autistic child, however cut off and distant they may outwardly seem, there resides a warm, beating heart.