Book review: ‘The Reason I Jump’ by Naoki Higashida
March 24, 2017
Nearly everyone knows someone whose family has been affected by autism. That said, there is no one demonstrative example of an individual with the disorder. People can exhibit a wide array of symptoms and amplitude, which is why autism is diagnosed as a spectrum disorder, with varying levels of severity.
For those on the most extreme end of the spectrum, autism can be particularly isolating, disheartening and tormenting. It's made all the more difficult because often communication skills are lacking, making it challenging to share with loved ones what the individual is experiencing.
"The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism" is Naoki Higashida's glimpse into the shadows of his lifelong struggle with autism. It provides a rare opportunity to delve into that world — not from the eyes and voice of his caregiver or heath care provider, but from his own teenage self, as he experiences the unique challenges of autism each single day.
Even before the young author begins a wonderful Q&A-style section, there is much to recommend about his book.
"Cloud Atlas" author David Mitchell provides the lengthy, poignant introduction, in which he invites the reader to imagine what a day might seem like — in a sensory way — to someone with autism — "A dam-burst of ideas, memories, impulses and thoughts is cascading over you, unstoppably."
He writes from a personal perspective, as the father of an autistic child. Before reading Higashida's perspective, Mitchell felt that his autistic child was lost and inaccessible to them.
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"Reading it felt as if, for the first time, our own son was talking to us about what was happening inside his head."
Translated into English — partly through David Mitchell's persistence and assistance — Higashida's words are more widely available and a vital tool for helping family members better understand the disorder. Suffering from its severest form, Higashida is mostly unable to speak, so he had to learn to communicate by pointing at letters on an alphabet grid and by using a computer keyboard.
The young author's voice is fresh and spontaneous, and page after page, he eagerly shares what his life is like. Throughout his thoughtful and lengthy answers to basic questions and concerns about autism, Higashida's goal is to de-mystify what has become an everyday battle for him.
There are moments of childish delight in the small book, interspersed with artwork and some fable-like short stories. However, much of the boy's answers show his honest struggle to communicate, which he feels is the essence of the human experience and is too often inaccessible to people suffering from autism.
Speech can often be stilted and choppy — if it happens at all — because there is a flaw in the linear flow between the words formed in the mind and the ones that leave the mouth. He calls the result "verbal junk."
Higashida clearly revels in his chance to express his feelings and to assert the yearning of every autistic to be understood and accepted. Though the inherent optimism of a child is evident in many of his answers, throughout the book there are some sad and desperate reflections.
Often, he says, people with autism are painfully aware of the unease they inspire in others. This leads them to avoid contact to eliminate that awkwardness, and sadly, equally often that effort based in empathy is not understood or appreciated.
"Stuck here inside these unresponsive bodies of ours, with feelings we can't properly express, it's always a struggle just to survive. How do you live when you're dead."
Life with autism is not all bad, though, he says, for despite a myriad of challenges, autistics have much to offer, "like travelers from the distant, distant past," serving as a reminder in this harried modern society of what is really important in life.
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