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The Reason I Jump:

One Boy’s Voice from the Silence of Autism

by Naoki Higashida trans KA Yoshida and David Mitchell

Naoki Higashida is a severely autistic schoolboy. The insights he offers into his cut-off world are nothing short of revelatory.

Naoki Higashida: his mind is ‘as curious, subtle and complex as yours, as mine, as anyone’s’ I’ve been reading books about autism for 20 years, ever since my oldest son, George, was diagnosed. Most are of some value, but a book that makes me want to say, “This is truly important, and anyone interested in autism should read it,” is a rare find. The Reason I Jump achieves this status.

The book, translated by the Booker-shortlisted novelist David Mitchell and his wife, KA Yoshida, is constructed as a series of frequently asked questions about the condition, to which Naoki Higashida, a Japanese teenager with severe autism, gives answers. These responses are interspersed with short fables: when Naoki wants to fix something in his mind, he writes a story about it. The last and longest one, I’m Right Here, lays to rest the belief that autism excludes empathy. It is an almost intolerably poignant meditation on love and loss.

Mitchell and Yoshida’s interest in The Reason I Jump stems from their own son, who also has autism. Yoshida first came across Naoki’s book online, and initially began to ­translate bits of it simply for those involved in her son’s care. Soon, though, the significance of what she was reading dawned on her and Mitchell. Though there are many memoirs by adults with autism, most have been written by people who have, to some extent, mastered their condition. What is so extraordinary about Naoki is that he still has “one foot in childhood”. This makes his book, explains Mitchell, “a revelatory godsend”.

Naoki is an extraordinary boy. Though he writes a blog, and has won prizes for his poems and stories, his autism prevents him from holding a conversation. To help him communicate, his mother devised an alphabet grid and taught him to point at the letters (now he can use a computer, but he still finds the grid “a steadier handrail”). To write, he moves from letter to letter, and a helper transcribes his words.

The results are astonishing. The ­Reason I Jump builds one of the strongest bridges yet constructed between the world of autism and the neurotypical world. It reveals, as Mitchell says, “a mind as curious, subtle and complex as yours, as mine, as anyone’s”. Naoki was only 13 when he wrote it.

My second son, Sam, also turned out to be autistic, so home life has for years been characterised by unusual obsessions, food fads, disordered sleep, running off, incomprehensible vocalisation, repetitive behaviour, perpetual motion, destructiveness, rages and mild self-harm. On the positive side, there are outbursts of glee, an intense response to music and colour, physical exuberance, oneness with nature, and an absence of malice. Even after years of close obser­vation, though, I’ve often been at a loss to explain either “good” or “bad” behaviours. Naoki’s answers sometimes confirm my suspicions, but sometimes introduce ideas that had never occurred to me.

A dominant theme is control. Autists have reduced control over body (Naoki describes the feeling as being “like remote-controlling a faulty robot”) and over mind (“I feel a deep envy,” he says, “towards people who can know what their own minds are saying, and who have the power to act accordingly”). I’ve often sensed that my sons are ­compelled to do things that they know are frowned upon (tearing up books, for example, or throwing things out of windows) by a force beyond their control. What I didn’t know is that their actions might leave them feeling despairing and remorseful. As Naoki says, “the hardest ordeal for us is the idea that we are causing grief for other people”.

Naoki’s memory is “like a pool of dots”. The repetitive questions that autists ask, so wearisome to the neurotypical questionee, are his way of picking up these dots so that he can “arrive back at the memory that the dots represent”. Why can’t people with autism sustain eye contact? “Because what we’re actually looking at is the other person’s voice,” Naoki replies, and making sense of what’s being said requires an immense multisensory effort. Why do some autists dislike being touched? “The toucher is exercising control over a body, which even its owner can’t properly control. It’s as if we lose who we are.”  Why do ­autistic children line up their toys? “When we’re playing in this way, our brains feel refreshed and clear,” is the answer. Do you have a sense of time? “For us, time is as difficult to grasp as picturing a country we’ve never been to.” Why do you run away? “Running off…is like being teleported from one place to another without knowing it’s happening.”

Naoki believes that people like him are disconnected from the rhythms and rules that govern the behaviour of the majority. “Our emotions…trigger abnormal reactions.” He believes that the despair caused by being misunderstood “has nowhere to go and fills up our entire bodies, making our senses more and more confused”. He writes eloquently about isolation, frustration and self-dislike, and pleads for patience and understanding. “The reason I say ‘watch out for us’ is that we can be made stronger just by the fact that you’re watching.” (This challenges the accepted view that autists crave aloneness.)

But Naoki also rejoices in autistic ­“otherness”. “Every single thing has its own unique beauty. People with autism get to cherish this beauty, as if it’s a kind of blessing to us… Nature is always there…to wrap us up, gently: glowing, swaying, bubbling, rustling.” This particularly resonates with me: my sons are both soothed and exhilarated by the natural world, and, like Naoki, they love to jump, hands flapping. So, why does he jump? “It’s like I’m shaking loose the ropes that are tying up my body… My urge to be swallowed up by the sky is enough to make my heart quiver.”

Autistic people are, says Naoki, “born with primeval senses”. The common autistic urge to immerse oneself in water shows a desire to get back to the primeval past. “If only there was a planet somewhere with a gravitational pull perfect for people with autism, then we’d be able to move around freely.”

Such ideas are fascinating, but what’s equally remarkable is that an autistic teenager so profoundly understands the need to communicate them to others. “It felt as if, for the first time, our own son was talking to us about what was happening inside his head,” says Mitchell of first reading the book. I felt the same. There are many more questions I’d like to ask Naoki, but the first words I’d say to him are “thank you”.

Read an extract

Why do people with autism talk so loudly and weirdly?

People often tell me that when I’m talking to myself my voice is really loud, even though I still can’t say what I need to, and even though my voice at other times is way too soft. This is one of those things I can’t control. It really gets me down. Why can’t I fix it?

When I’m talking in a weird voice, I’m not doing it on purpose. Sure, there are some times when I find the sound of my own voice comforting, when I’ll use familiar words or easy-to-say phrases. But the voice I can’t control is different. This one blurts out, not because I want it to: it’s more like a reflex.

A reflex reacting to what? To what I’ve just seen, in some cases, or to some old memories. When my weird voice gets triggered, it’s almost impossible to hold it back – and if I try, it actually hurts, almost as if I’m strangling my own throat.

I’d be okay with my weird voice on my own, but I’m aware that it bothers other people. How often have the strange sounds coming out of my mouth embarrassed me nearly to death? Honest, I want to be nice and calm and quiet too! But even if we’re ordered to keep our mouths shut or to be quiet we simply don’t know how. Our voices are like our breathing, I feel, just coming out of our mouths, unconsciously.

Why do you ask the same questions over and over?

It’s true; I always ask the same questions. ‘What day is it today?’ or ‘Is it a school day tomorrow?’ Simple matters like these, I ask again and again. I don’t repeat my question because I didn’t understand – in fact, even as I’m asking, I know I do understand.

The reason why? Because I very quickly forget what it is I’ve just heard. Inside my head there really isn’t such a big difference between what I was told just now, and what I heard a long, long time ago.

So I do understand things, but my way of remembering them works differently from everyone else’s. I imagine a normal person’s memory is arranged continuously, like a line. My memory, however, is more like a pool of dots. I’m always ‘picking up’ these dots – by asking my questions – so I can arrive back at the memory that the dots represent.

But there’s another reason for our repeated questioning: it lets us play with words. We aren’t good at conversation, and however hard we try, we’ll never speak as effortlessly as you do. The big exception, however, is words or phrases we’re very familiar with. Repeating these is great fun. It’s like a game of catch with a ball. Unlike the words we’re ordered to say, repeating questions we already know the answers to can be a pleasure – it’s playing with sound and rhythm.

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