The autism described in The Reason I Jump is not what is typified in either clinical or popular descriptions of autism. Though the disorder presents on a spectrum with each individual’s experience different from others, one may hope to get a general understanding of the experiences an individual with autism has. This memoir presents a fresh take, both in prose and content, on the experience of autism.
Naoki Higashida, the thirteen-year-old author, has autism and is nonverbal. However, he learned to use a picture alphabet called a hiragana to point to and create words, and with the help of his mother as a scribe, wrote the book. It remained obscure until an American novelist, David Mitchell, and his Japanese wife, K.A Yoshida, translated the memoir into English and then it reached a wide distribution.
Before discussing the content of the book, it’s crucial to acknowledge its genesis. The Reason I Jump purports to describe the experiences of an autistic child from first-hand knowledge. And many, including myself, read it to better understand their unique, internal world. However, that world is not unfiltered. The author’s mother, the Japanese-to-English translator, as well as the American author contributed to the final product. While this does not detract from the intent of the book, it does put important restrictions on the book’s use as a primary source document.
It is written in a question and answer format: a question is posed to Higashida about his life with autism and he answers. There are 50-some of these questions, and the responses are generally a page long. To fill out the rest of this book is a short story written by the boy that is overflowing with sentiment and heart. Even with this story, the book, at 176 pages, is sparse. Yet in those pages I was able to get a sense of the feelings of helplessness and disconnection in daily life of the author.
Particularly striking were Higashida’s reflections on why he misbehaved. According to his writing, he does not feel fully in control of his body or his mind. In moments of lucidity or retrospect, he speaks of how he hates himself for being disobedient and causing trouble. He is simultaneously aware of his misdeeds and unable to help himself, the psychological effects of which are devastating. He describes a transient lack of agency over his mind and his body, echoing terrifying feelings of a sort-of lock-in syndrome as a major feature of his disorder, a victim of other forces controlling his body.
Higashida’s experience with autism is far from the social-deficit focused description popularly portrayed. In the introduction, Mitchell contends that Higashida’s social difficulties are perhaps the most visible symptoms but actually secondary to other causes. Higashida’s words reinforce this idea. One passage in particular describes his strong empathetic abilities:
But I ask you, those of you who are with us all day, not to stress yourselves out because of us. When you do this, it feels as if you’re denying any value at all that our lives may have–and that saps the spirit we need to soldier on. The hardest ordeal for us is the idea that we are causing grief for other people. We can put up with our own hardships okay, but the thought that our lives are the source of other people’s unhappiness, that’s plain unbearable.
Another well-characterized feature of Higashida’s autism is the inescapable influence of detail. While neurotypical individuals have robust top-down control of their attention, Higashida seems to lack this. When answering why he doesn’t look people in the eye while talking, his summarized response is that looking at people in the eye is too distracting. He utilizes all of his attentional abilities to focus on the words the other person is saying. A verbal communication is not just a verbal exchange but an embodiment of the other’s language; emphatically and viscerally feeling, not just listening.
When you see an object, it seems that you see it as an entire thing first, and only afterwards do its details follow on. 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 float up into focus.
This inability to maintain a broad focus is a recurrent theme. In one chapter, Higashida writes about his reluctance to endorse a visual calendar of daily activities. Children with autism respond well to visual organization but Higashida cautioned against it because when he is presented with such a calendar, he takes the pictoral representations of activities as literal presentations of what he will be doing. A group of kids at a museum is not a general museum visit, but a specific group of kids visiting a specific museum, experiencing different emotions as conveyed by their facial expressions. Higashida becomes worried that his experience is not the one from the calendar, detracting from whatever the planned activity is.
It is these uncommon insights into the world of an autistic individual that make this book a worthwhile read. While the book expresses an original outlook on autism, it is still the experiences of only one individual that has molded by the minds of several intermediaries. It should not be generalized to be the assumed default experience of every individual with autism, but may very well prove to be clinically or therapeutically relevant. Treatment for autism can only work as much as the disorder is understood, and it is these keen insights into the private experiences of a mind profoundly affected by a neurodevelopmental disorder that may provide fruitful ideas at which to target therapies.