Recently I read the book The Reason I Jump: One Boy’s Voice from the Silence of Autism. This is a very unusual book, for both its content and its format. The writer, Naoki Higashida, wrote this book when he was 13. It consists of 58 questions and answers that give a picture of autism from the inside – and this time not from one of the few people with autism who are also verbally strong (often people with Asperger’s), but written by a boy who has sever communication problems. He wrote the book using an alphabet grid; a helper can then transcribe what he wants to tell us.
Naoki gives answers to questions such as “Why do you echo questions back at the asker?” or “Why do you take ages to answer questions?” or “Why don’t you make eye contact when you’re talking?” – and the question that gave the book it’s title “What’s the reason you jump?”. The answers are highly interesting and revelatory of the autistic mind – at least, of one autistic mind. It takes ages to answer a question because “by the time it’s our turn to speak, the reply we wanted to make has often upped and vanished from our heads … and all the while, we’re being bombarded by yet more questions. I end up thinking, this is just hopeless. It’s as if I’m drowning in a flood of words.” [his italics]. And the reason he jumps? “When something happens that affects me emotionally, my body seizes up as if struck by lightening. … it means I am not free to move the way I want.”
The book was published in Japan in 2006, and has now been translated by K.A. Yoshida and David Mitchell, who have a son with autism. In the introduction to the translation, Mitchell calls this book ‘a revelatory godsend’, since “for the first time our son was talking to us about what was happening inside his head, through Naoki’s words”. On fora where readers post their reviews, many similar reactions can be found. And I must agree: there are insights given by Naoki Higashida that I had never considered before, but that make a lot of sense. One important insight to take home is that people with autism often have sensory oversensitivities, which can explain a lot of their behaviors that neurotypicals would classify as ‘odd’ or ‘inappropriate’. Another important insight is the role that anxieties play (in part caused by the oversensitive senses) in behavior that neurotypicals would classify as unacceptable (severe tantrums, yelling, aggression) or as very odd (the urge to collect items, or the urge to create order, e.g by lining up all toy cars).
Two remarks. First, as the saying goes, if one has met one person with autism, one has met one person with autism. The same for the insights one can gain from autobiographical accounts of people with autism. But that makes it all the more important to read a variety of autobiographical accounts. For example, the collection of autobiographical stories in Aquamarine Blue 5 – Personal Stories of College Students with Autism, or the famous autobiographical account by Temple Grandin, Thinking in Pictures, are both very different than the account we get in The Reason I jump. Given that at the phenomenological level autism can manifest itself in such diverse ways, the only way to gain a somewhat realistic picture of autism is by accessing multiple autobiographical accounts (in addition to second-person and more scientific sources of knowledge).
The second comment is a worry expressed by some readers (also on the fora and in discussions) – namely whether this really has been fully written by a 13 year old boy. Some are worried about the extent to which the transcribing has affected the text. I don’t really have a view on this. I didn’t read anything in this book that, to the best of my knowledge, could not have been written by a 13-year old boy with autism. It’s probably good to keep those potential influences in mind; but it doesn’t diminish the value of learning more about the first-person perspective of a child/adolescent with (rather severe) autism.