The Reason I Jump – Book Review

Today is World Autism Awareness Day, and April is celebrated as Autism Awareness Month. It is a “reaffirmation of the commitment to promote the full participation of all people with autism, and ensure they have the necessary support to exercise their fundamental rights and freedom.” (United Nations) Here’s a book on autism, written by a person with autism.

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Title – The Reason I Jump

Author – Naoki Higashida (translation by KA Yoshida and David Mitchell)

Illustrators – Kai and Sunny

Genre – Non-fiction

Naoki Higoshida was born in 1992 and diagnosed with autism in 1998. He graduated in 2011, and has published several works of fiction and non-fiction. The Reason I Jump was written when Naoki was thirteen years old, and published in 2007. Naoki learnt to communicate using a Japanese alphabet grid – a table of forty Japanese hiragana letters; and its English counterpart is a copy of the QWERTY keyboard, drawn on to a card and laminated. The three characters used for the word ‘autism‘ in Japanese signify ‘self‘, ‘shut‘ and ‘illness‘. The book was originally written in Japanese, which KA Yoshida crudely translated into English to help her own son’s teachers and carers understand his needs better. Yoshida is the wife of David Mitchell (popularly known as the author of Cloud Atlas). Mitchell was the one who suggested they come out with a properly translated version to help more parents of children with autism understand why they do what they do.

“Imagine a daily life in which your faculty of speech is taken away. Explaining that you are hungry, or tired, or in pain, is beyond your powers, as is a chat with a friend. A dam-burst of ideas, memories, impulses and thoughts is cascading over you unstoppably. Your mind is a room where twenty radios, all tuned to different stations, are blaring out voices and music.”

Sentience is something we often take for granted, but for those with autism, sensory input is unfiltered in quality and overwhelming in quantity. Vestibular and proprioceptive senses are out of kilter, and the floor keeps “tilting like a ferry in heavy seas”. The air conditioner is as deafening as an electric drill, but your father who’s right here in front of you sounds like he is speaking from far away. Every autistic person exhibits their own variation of the condition. Hence the term Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD).

The Reason I Jump was written as an attempt to “discredit the doomiest item of received wisdom about autism – that people with autism are anti-social loners who lack empathy.” Naoki reiterates that he values the company of people, but because communication is so fraught with problems, a person with autism tends to end up alone in a corner. “Emotional poverty and an aversion to company are not symptoms of autism but consequences of autism.”

The book follows a conversational pattern, with Naoki presenting answers as descriptions to commonly asked questions and dilemmas faced by non-autistic people who do not know how to interact with a person with autism.
~The primary query is about expression, since autistics are known to not be very vocal. Naoki expresses himself using the computer and an alphabet grid, and this is how he wrote this entire book (and all of his other writings.)
~Regarding asking the same questions over and over – The reason for asking repeatedly is not because they fail to understand, but because they quickly forget what they hear. “In my head there isn’t such a big difference between what I was just told, and what I heard a long time ago“. (They do not follow the concept of time.)
~On echolalia (echoing what the opposite speaker says) – Conversation for a person with autism is very hard work; like speaking in an unknown foreign language. Repeating the exact same thing they have heard offers comfort in familiarity.
~On lack of eye contact – They ‘look’ for the person’s voice and try to ‘feel’ for it with all of their sense organs, as if it is something tangible. This helps them focus better on what is being said, but appears ‘zoned out’ to the opposite person.
~On preferring to be on their own – Their anxiety is about the trouble they cause for others, and hence prefer to stay away from people.
On why they hate being touched, on what “normal” really is, on ‘writing’ letters in the air, on being intolerant to noise, on making awkward movements (jumping up and down, flapping their arms), on being picky eaters, on their fascination for numbers and other obsessions, and a plethora of other insights are offered for a non-autistic person to understand one with autism better.

There are a number of short stories interspersed within the chapters, and a little longer one at the end of the book. Naoki uses stories as a way of understanding and finding his way around. He weaves concepts into tales and this helps him interpret and remember better.

The book offers valuable inputs and suggestions into the life of a person – or rather a child – with autism. This is not about adult autistics who have already found their place in the world and are managing well as constructive contributors of society (like Temple Grandin). The Reason I Jump is more for parents with young children with autism, who do not know how to manage the condition when their toddler is newly diagnosed – like David Mitchell who found the book so valuable that he decided to translate it to help many others.

Autism was the subject of my thesis, and having worked closely with children on the spectrum, I can vouch for the fact that ASD presents with a vast array of behaviors, with each individual exhibiting them differently. Naoki covers a comprehensive set of behavioral patterns to give us a glimpse into the life and mind of a person with autism, all in the hope that the non-autistic population understands them better. What is “normal” after all, if supposedly “normal” (read non-autistic) people lack empathy and are intolerant to those different from themselves? As Naoki summarises, “Even if somebody developed a medicine to cure autism, I might choose to stay as I am. I’ve learnt that every human being, with or without disabilities, needs to strive to do their best. For us, having autism is normal, so we don’t know what your ‘normal’ is.

I read the English version and it is very readable. Mitchell has created the right balance for the writings of a thirteen year old, without making it come across as too childish for adult readers. The illustrations by Kai and Sunny scattered through the book are beautiful. Regarding the cover, blue is the color for autism. The butterflies depict Naoki’s understanding of ‘butterflies in the stomach’ as a sign for nervousness and anxiety. (He needs visual prompts to understand). This is a must-read book – highly recommended for those who work with people with autism, or have a loved one on the spectrum, and most importantly for non-autistics to do away with any misconceptions regarding the condition. Of course, it will not tell you everything you need to know about the condition, but it serves as a primer to empathize with individuals with autism.

Rating – 4/5 (Since I read the translated version)

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