The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism, by Naoki Higashida
Introduction by David Mitchell
Translated by KA Yoshida and David Mitchell
Originally published in Japan by Escor Publishers in 2007
Published in the US by Random House, 2013
Before reading The Reason I Jump, I hadn’t been aware of the reaction this book was getting from the autism community. Like similar books written by or about people on the autism spectrum, this one evokes powerful emotions and viewpoints, dividing readers into two camps.
There are those who believe it is “a one-of-a-kind memoir that demonstrates how an autistic mind thinks, feels, perceives, and responds in ways few of us can imagine” (as described on the book jacket) and who marvel that Naoki has achieved this at all.
That’s because “Naoki’s autism is severe enough to make spoken communication pretty much impossible …[b]ut thanks to an ambitious teacher and his own persistence, he learned to spell out words directly onto an alphabet grid. A Japanese alphabet grid is a table of the basic forty Japanese hiragana letters, and its English counterpart is a copy of the QWERTY keyboard, drawn onto a card and laminated. Naoki communicates by pointing to the letters on these grids to spell out whole words, which a helper at his side then transcribes. These words build up into sentences, paragraphs, and entire books.” (pg. xiii)
It is in this process – and translation – that there becomes the tendency for a bit of wishful thinking to come into play, writes Sally Tisdale, in her excellent New York Times review (and one that I agree with) of The Reason I Jump. Especially so when the translators are themselves the parents of a nonverbal child with autism, as KA Yoshida and David Mitchell happen to be.
“…but it was his explanations about why children with autism do what they do that were, literally, the answers that we had been waiting for. Composed by a writer still with one foot in childhood, and whose autism was at least as challenging and life-altering as our son’s, The Reason I Jump was a revelatory godsend. Reading it felt as if, for the first time, our own son was talking to us about what was happening inside his head, through Naoki’s words.” (pg. xiii-xiv) ~ David Mitchell, in the introduction to “The Reason I Jump”
My desire and intent isn’t to point fingers or make unsubstantiated allegations. Those aren’t my issues with this book. (We’ll get to them in a minute.) In fact, David Mitchell’s introduction was my favorite part of the entire book. It was an excerpt from this introduction that made me curious about The Reason I Jump before seeing it at the library, and I was again gripped by Mr. Mitchell’s words as I re-read them during my lunch break at work. You can tell his is a life of caring and loving someone with autism, that he knows this life intimately well.
However, there are portions of this book that are … eyebrow-raising.
The Reason I Jump is written in an interview/question and answer format, and also includes drawings and some original creative writing pieces of Naoki’s. I can only surmise that the writing was included to support the premise that a 13 year old boy is capable of writing things like this:
“But for people with autism, the details jump straight out at us first of all, and then only gradually, detail by detail, does the whole image sort of float up into focus. What part of the whole image captures our eyes first depends on a number of things. When a color is vivid or a shape is eye-catching, then that’s the detail that claims our attention, and then our hearts kind of drown in it, and we can’t concentrate on anything else.
Every single thing has its own unique beauty. People with autism get to cherish this beauty, as if it’s a kind of blessing given to us. Wherever we go, whatever we do, we can never be completely lonely. We may look like we’re not with anyone, but we’re always in the company of friends.” (pg. 59-60)
“Q39: Why do you like being in the water?
We just want to go back. To the distant, distant past. To a primeval era, in fact, before human beings even existed. All people with autism feel the same about this one, I reckon …” (pg. 71)
The emphasis above is mine. Those of us who have traveled along the autism spectrum road with a loved one know the mantra all too well: if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism. It’s called a spectrum for a reason.
My concern with The Reason I Jump is how Naoki often claims to be “speaking” (for lack of a better word) for everyone who has autism. It makes me nervous when one person appoints him or herself the spokesperson for all who are afflicted with a condition that has so many variables and differences as autism. Now, since Naoki was 13 when he wrote this book, that’s forgivable but there are a lot of people who are putting much stock into his statements and ascribing them to ALL persons with autism. That, quite frankly, is worrisome.
“Q47: Would you give us an example of something people with autism really enjoy?
We do take pleasure in one thing that you probably won’t be able to guess. Namely, making friends with nature. The reason we aren’t much good at people skills is that we think too much about what sort of impression we’re making on the other person, or how we should be responding to this or that. But nature is always at hand to wrap us up, gently: glowing , swaying, bubbling, rustling.
Just by looking at nature, I feel as if I’m being swallowed up into it, and in that moment I get the sensation that my body’s now a speck, a speck from long before I was born, a speck that is melting into nature herself. This sensation is so amazing that I forget I am a human being, and one with special needs to boot.” (pg. 88)
Back when he was first diagnosed with autism, my son hated the beach. He refused to go near the ocean, preferring to pace along the shoreline shrouded in a towel like a devout monk. While other toddlers were gleefully building sandcastles and jumping in the waves, my boy (and we) walked back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, dragging our expectations of the perfect family beach vacation behind us.
It’s fair to say that we weren’t a friend of nature during those years.
My point is that it’s tempting to read The Reason I Jump as a position paper about what all people with autism think, especially if you care for and love a child who is nonverbal, but that its dangerous to view it exclusively in that light. Unfortunately, that’s how this book is being marketed.
Instead, it should be taken for what it is: a prompt to walk even more closely with the people in our lives with autism to see the prisms through which he or she uniquely views the world.