David Mitchell was looking for a better way to understand his autistic son’s behaviour when he and his wife came across a book from Japan entitled The Reason I Jump. It was, however, in the original Japanese when he received it. The immense impact it had on Mitchell led him to take it upon himself to see it translated into English to reach a wider audience. After reading it myself, I can say that English language bookshops were sorely deprived in the six-year gap between Japanese publication and English translation.
The Reason I Jump is the most refreshing book I have read in a long time, which is surprising considering it comes from the mind of a thirteen year-old boy trapped inside a body that prevents him from communicating with the world around him. Its author, Naoki Higashida, suffers from severe autism that makes things most people can do without a second thought —like asking a question or controlling body movement— an arduous, frustrating, and sometimes impossible task. In writing about his struggles Higashida does not ask for or want pity; he simply wants to increase understanding.
He structures the book in a unique way, starting chapters with questions he is asked about autism, followed by explanations. Interspersed among these are short stories written by Naoki, many of which combine simplicity with profound wisdom so as to make them seem like parables or little myths from some distant past. Even the arrangement of the book gives us insight into how differently people with autism see the world. Higashida speaks to his readers; you don’t get the sense that he wrote something and handed it off to someone and now through some chain of events it has reached you, the reader. I say he speaks because, despite his inability to physically speak, the narration feels like someone sitting down and telling you a story. I read the book in a trance of feverish fascination and came out of it feeling like I had just had a conversation with the man himself.
What makes Higashida’s book so refreshing is that he shows that the perhaps overly complicated way in which people without autism think and function makes us miss things, or choose to ignore them altogether. Compassion, for instance, can be easy to forget about if you are never the one who needs it from others; denying another person compassion can be as simple as being rude. Higashida says, ‘True compassion is about not bruising the other person’s self-respect.” Lines like this, scattered throughout the book, make you ask yourself: that’s simple enough, so why wasn’t it always obvious to me? But that is, after all, the heart of his story: seeing from a different perspective so as to understand something in a new way
The final question posed in the book asks for Higashida’s thoughts on autism itself. He responds with the following comment: “Although people with autism look like other people physically, we are in fact very different in many ways. We are more like travellers from the distant, distant past. And if, by our being here, we could help the people of the world remember what truly matters for the Earth, that would give us a quiet pleasure.” I would like to believe that I, and anyone who reads this brief but powerful book, know something of what it’s like to share in that quiet pleasure in some small way.
Image Credits: All ownership, including distribution, by Sceptre