BY SOPHY KOHLER
Written by Naoki Higashida at the age of 13 and first published in Japan in 2007, The Reason I Jump: One Boy’s Voice from the Silence of Autism, is a startling breakthrough across the genres of memoir, self-help and psychology. In fact, it transcends all of these categories; it is a beautiful mix of observation, memory and fiction, with empathy at its core. While Higashida has been billed as a “motivational speaker”, he is, more simply, a fine writer.
The Reason I Jump was released in English by Hodder & Stoughton earlier this year, after Cloud Atlas author David Mitchell and his wife, KA Yoshida, themselves parents of an autistic child, took it upon themselves to translate the work and make it available to a wider audience. As Mitchell remarks in his introduction, Higashida helped him to realise that what are often thought of as symptoms of autism (“emotional poverty”, “aversion to company”) are rather consequences of autism. Most notably, on being alone Higashida writes: “I can’t believe that anyone born as a human being really wants to be left all on their own, not really. No, for people with autism, what we’re anxious about is that we’re causing trouble for the rest of you […] This is why it’s hard for us to stay around other people.”
Through statements like this, Higashida reveals what it is really like to have autism; he allows us some access to his complex inner world. The value of this is immeasurable, especially to someone like Mitchell, who notes how, listening to Higashida “it felt as if, for the first time, our own son was talking to us about what was happening inside his head.”
The book consists of a series of short chapters, each of which begins with a question or a leading statement (“Why do you repeat certain actions again and again?”, “Why don’t you make eye contact when you’re talking?”), to which Higashida attempts to provide an answer or some clarification. In some cases he is aware that he cannot fully answer as his experience is simply one of many; he cannot speak for everyone with autism. Higashida’s answers avoid the style of agony aunt columns that they could easily have become; they are refreshingly poetic and often indirect — it is not his place to give advice so much as to help us reach a greater understanding. To the book’s title question, “What’s the reason you jump?”, he responds: “When I’m jumping it’s as if my feelings are going upwards to the sky. Really, my urge to be swallowed up by the sky is enough to make my heart quiver.”
The chapters are interspersed with pieces of fiction of alarming insight and empathy, written by Higashida, and accompanied by beautiful, minimalist line drawings by creative duo Kai & Sunny. The drawings replace the chaos and daily trauma of autism with a sense of peace and calm. Higashida’s fiction demonstrates his profound capacity to for empathy, something that autistic people are often regarded as incapable of; this is just one of many of our misconceptions about autism that the book challenges.
The book should, however, be treated with some caution. We should be wary of concluding from this single account that everyone with autism experiences the world in the same way, just as everyone experiences their “normality” in vastly different ways. But here the onus is on the reader rather than Higashida, who makes it clear that he is speaking for himself and not necessarily for everyone; he tries to answer questions posed to him about autism and, by having autism, he is more able to try and explain the behaviours of others than we are. Additionally, there is the inevitable issue of translation, which becomes doubly problematic here as, even before the book reached Mitchell and Yoshida, it was a kind of translation — Higashida is translating autism for us. Can we trust that not too much has been lost? Rather than simply relying on Higashida as our sole narrator, then, perhaps we should hope that this book encourages others with autism to find their voice through writing.
In addition to being a talented writer and something of a pioneer, Naoki Higashida is also brave. While it is not the first book to be written about autism, The Reason I Jump lacks the heaviness and clinicalness with which its subject is usually treated. Not only is it illuminating, but it is strangely uplifting. It will make your heart quiver.
The Reason I Jump is published by Hodder & Stoughton, R225.