The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism
Translated by KA Yoshida and David Mitchell
First English Edition: August 27, 2013
Autism is an umbrella term for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) a group of complex disorders of brain development characterized by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors. (What was once known as Asperger syndrome is now considered to be within the ASD realm.) According to the advocacy group Autism Speaks, 1 in 88 American children have been identified as being on the autism spectrum, with it being 4 to 5 times more common in boys than girls. This means that over 2 million people in the US and tens of millions worldwide fall under the ASD spectrum.
There is no cure for autism, nor is there a clear understanding of what causes the disorder or why some are affected so deeply while others seem to only be lightly touched by it. What is known, however, is that it is becoming more prevalent in our modern society, more so than can be accounted for by increased awareness and better diagnostics.
Many of us know little of autism, though, beyond the “idiot savants” such as what we’ve been presented by Dustin Hoffman in the movie Rainman, or perhaps by the character of young Jake in the television series “Touch”, or Max Braverman in “Parenthood”. Or maybe we’ve gleaned something from the remarkable and very real Temple Grandin through the 2010 HBO film about her that brought accolades to actress Claire Danes (who often brought Grandin to awards ceremonies and interviews, giving her the spotlight). Still, our pop culture driven view of ASD is, obviously, incomplete and prettified for mass consumption.
Yet more of us are coming into contact with autism, if not directly, then through friends and family who have children or brothers or sisters, or some other relative who has been diagnosed as being “on the autism spectrum”. We hear on the news of the struggle to find medical insurance that covers the huge cost of those profoundly affected by autism, or about the local family who must expend so much time and energy coping with an autistic child, and we get a glimpse of the challenges of the disorder. The complexity and sheer impact of autism – not just the Hollywood version – is starting to be felt and seen in our society. But very, very few of us can make a claim to even remotely understand autism, or be able to empathize with what it must be like to be autistic.
That is why Naoki Higashida’s book The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism is so important.
Today, Naoki Higashida is 21 years old; he was diagnosed with severe autism at age 5. When he was 13, he wrote a book in which he answered 58 questions about his experience with autism, ranging from “Why do you ask the same questions over and over?” to “Is it true that you hate being touched?” to “What’s the worst thing about having autism?”
Naoki was able to share his answers using a computer and an ingenious alphabet grid developed by his mother. Through hours of difficult and tiring work by Naoki, his mother, and many dedicated teachers and caregivers, he was able to finally communicate through the written word, and the thoughts and expressions of his unbelievably gracious and nimble mind has finally given all of us a glimpse of the frustrations, fears, hopes and joys that hide behind the curtain of ASD.
From our standpoint, I feel deep envy of people who can know what their own minds are saying, and who have the power to act accordingly. My brain is always sending me off on little missions, whether or not I want to do them. And if I don’t obey, then I have to fight a feeling of horror. Really, it’s like I’m being pushed over the brink into a kind of Hell.
For people with autism, living itself is a battle.
Time and time again, Naoki relates a sense of bafflement as to why his brain and body react as they do; after all, he was only 13 when he wrote his responses. He struggles to give non-autistic, linear thinkers some kind of basis of understanding from a standpoint of expressing the unrelatable. Over and over he pleads for patience, and for not giving up on an autistic person, even when actions and reactions are hard or uncomfortable, loud or nonsensical to those of us who are “normal”. His yearning for understanding is palpable.
Yet he also holds within himself great joy. When asked why he jumps, he responds:
… when I’m jumping, it’s as if 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. When I’m jumping, I can feel my body parts really well, too – my bounding legs and my clapping hands – and that makes me feel so, so good.
Interspersed with these questions and answers are small stories and snippets of creative thought authored by Naoki that are touching and, at times, exquisite. (I found his six paragraph tale of “The Black Crow and the White Dove” to be particularly inspiring.) At the end of the book is a short story, “I’m Right Here”, that is imaginative, thoughtful and empathetic; the work of a truly creative writer.
When David Mitchell, bestselling author of Cloud Atlas, was looking for information that would help him better understand his own autistic son, he found lots of medical and scientific data, but very little on how to comprehend what his son was going through. Then his wife, KA Yoshida, obtained a copy of Naoki’s writing (in Japanese), and suddenly they had a glimpse into the workings of an autistic mind. Knowing that many others would benefit from the insight given in the book, Ms. Yoshida started on an English translation, and in collaboration with her husband the English version of The Reason I Jump was published in 2013. (Mitchell also provides the touching Introduction to this English translation.)
On October 1, 2013, David Mitchell discussed The Reason I Jump on “The Daily Show“, where host Jon Stewart called the book one of the most remarkable books he had ever read. “It’s truly moving, eye opening, incredibly vivid”, Stewart raved, “The complexity of this young boy’s understanding of his process explodes so many myths about people with autism.” Later in the interview David Mitchell talks about appreciating how the book endows dignity on people with autism. He makes the point that our society tends to equate intelligence with the ability to be articulate, but that The Reason I Jump shows that autistic people are not truly broken, that they can possess intelligence and a “mental eloquence” that exists behind a wall of speechlessness, in a form that is not easy for us to comprehend.
Remarkable, indeed. What kind of tangible value can we put on something that gifts us with a greater understanding of a heretofore closed world around us? This small book will not take long to read, but its effect will resonate long after it has been returned to the shelf.