Naoki Higashida © Miki Higashida
Naoki Higashida's The Reason I Jump offers a stunningly clear-eyed look into the experiences of a boy with autism. Higashida was thirteen when he wrote the book with the transcription and translation help of KA Yoshida and David Mitchell (a novelist who is also the author of Cloud Atlas and number9dream). Despite being unable to speak, Higashida writes with almost poetic sparseness, answering questions about his life as an autistic person: Why do you flutter your hands? Why do you jump so much? Why can’t you just listen? Higashida’s straightforward yet revealing answers will be read with great interest by those who share a life with someone diagnosed with autism. But his words reveal truths about communication and connection that all humans should contemplate. Here are five insights that Higashida illuminates.
1. Don’t talk down to people with autism. Or anyone.
Some people tend to assume that individuals with all kinds of disabilities have a less than mature understanding of language. But in many cases, even when speech and language production are impaired, understanding is not. Higashida explains to readers that baby talk is disheartening for him to hear as a young man. He encourages people not to talk down to people with autism, or anyone. “True compassion is about not bruising the other person’s self respect,” he writes, revealing not only an expert command of language but also wisdom beyond his years.
2. The right frame of reference is crucial for true understanding.
In the book, short stories, parables and anecdotes are interspersed with Higashida’s answers to common questions about autism. In one anecdote, he highlights an example of an autistic girl who blurted out the words “all of us,” and left her friends wondering what she meant. In reality, the girl was responding to a teacher that had said, “All of us are going to the park.” The girl was only able to say the words “all of us,” when what she really wanted to know was what time “all of [them]” would be visiting the park. Her friends speculated about possible meanings, but didn’t land on the right one. The autistic child’s experience of time and language was so different from her friends’ that the gap in experience translated to a gap in understanding. The anecdote reminds us that these gaps exist for all of us. Day to day most of us are able to fill in the missing pieces with inferences based on our shared experience of time, and of the world. But everyone would do well to remember that all kinds of differences in experience can widen the gap – and put energy in to making sure we have the necessary information to correctly interpret the words we hear.
3. Loners might be lonely
“Ah, don’t worry about him – he’d rather be on his own.” Higashida says he hears these words often spoken about him. But his reason for staying away from others is not because he would prefer to be alone. Instead, he explains that he feels anxious that his autism is causing difficulties for other people, or flat out getting on their nerves. To avoid the anxiety, he often takes himself away from others when he really would like their company. The distinction is something to keep in mind if there are people in your life you assume prefer to be alone. Sure, some people truly prefer solitude. But loneliness can also be a habit, one we reinforce or relieve by the way we react to those loners in our lives.
4. Time is an unfathomable concept when you really get down to it.
Many people with autism have a difficulty accurately perceiving the passage of time. But the way Higashida describes time, readers realize what a strange talent is to be able to "accurately" understand how much time has passed between events. "Time is a continuous thing with no clear boundaries," he writes. "You can’t capture the passing of time on a piece of paper […] There’s not a lot of difference between one second and twenty-four hours." It is true in Higashida’s experience of autism, but upon reflection many readers will find truth in his words; a minute in a boring meeting can seem eternal and an hour to say goodbye to a lover can seem infinitesimal. We mark the difference with moving numbers, but there is no fixed reality for any of us to anchor ourselves to in the streams of time.
5. Effective communication is worth the hard work.
Higashida is unable to speak and unable to control his body effectively much of the time. And yet he is a published author and his ideas are connecting with readers around the world. To share his experiences and his fiction with the world, and even to communicate basic needs to his family and caretakers, he painstakingly spells out the words on alphabet grids while others transcribe. He admits learning to communicate independently was hard work and at times, he felt “utterly beaten” by the process. But, Higashida reminds us, “to live my life as a human being, nothing is more important than being able to express myself […] it’s about getting across to other people what I need and what I need them to understand.”