Friday, September 6, 2013

Book Review: The Reason I Jump
By Naoki Higashida, translated by KA Yoshida and David Mitchell
Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2013

This is a deceptively simple book on the face of it.  It was originally written in Japanese in 2007 by a then thirteen year old boy who had autism.  Having autism is a challenge enough, but in this case he was also nonverbal.  His teacher and mother taught him to communicate using a letter grid, which is diagrammed in the book.  The book is essentially in a question and answer format, and the answers are short: I think the longest answer takes three pages.

It is a testament to the dedication of the translators that the book is a very ‘even’ read.  It is also a very fast read: I had it read in a couple of hours for the first go around.  This is because 

I found it absorbing and very compelling. However, I began re-reading it the same day and that is when I found some subtleties within the book.

I wrote in my blog that I had reason to believe that I might be on the autism spectrum, and after reading this book I believe it more strongly than ever.  This is the great focal point of the book: it will explain autistic behaviours to parents and teachers and friends, but more importantly, it will remind you in plain words a little about yourself.  You will come away from the book with a greater compassion and self-knowledge, and that is the hallmark of a great book, and that is why I am recommending it.

There are two elements that the writer returns to again and again: be patient with me and be understanding of me.  By extension, this grows to include all who are on the autism spectrum.  I would say this ideal extends to all who have disabilities, as Higashida says in one part of his book.

The book does not have consistent paging, which is a feature not an oversight.  To simplify, the questions are numbered in order.  Not only this but there are some short stories included in the book that are, again, deceptively simple on the face of it, but after re-reading lead us into greater complexity.

Higashida explains in his own words some behaviours that autistic people do, and provides reason for those behaviours, as in the spinning, the hand flapping and the writing in air, and those explanations are made coherent within the understanding of the author’s experience living with autism.  The author also shows us around his inner life and provides descriptions of it, which is a very humanizing element for those who work with people who have autism; parents, caregivers, teachers and friends.

There are instances where an explanation is compelling, and falls in line with some of the most recent research:

‘However, our fondness for nature is, I think, a little bit different from everyone else’s.  I’m guessing that what touches you in nature is the beauty of the trees and the flowers and things.  But to us people with special needs, nature is as important as our own lives.  The reason is that when we look at nature, we receive a sort of permission to be alive in this world…’ (p. 85) 

In his book The Nature Principle, Richard Louv stated this through current research on children and people with autism, so this is a nice echo of an effective reality.

This book is a plea for understanding.  Consider the following quote: ‘We cry, we scream, we hit out and break things.  But still, we don’t want you to give up on us.  Please, keep battling alongside us.’ (p. 105)   Higashida also writes, ‘True compassion is about not bruising the other person’s self-respect.’ (p. 15)  These two quotes show a deep inner life that some would never dream exists.

Tellingly, Higashida writes in one section of the book, and this is a remark that can apply to us all,


‘I’ve learned that every human being, with or without disabilities, needs to strive to do their best, and by striving for happiness you will arrive at happiness.  For us you see, having autism is normal – so we can’t know for sure what your ‘normal’ is even like.  But so long as we can learn to love ourselves, I’m not sure how much it matters whether we’re normal or autistic.’ (p. 45)

2 comments:

  1. There is also a beautiful book called "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly". I have read some excerpts. It was written by a man named Jean-Dominique Bauby, who experienced "locked-in" syndrome - he was fully conscious, but incapable of movement except for one eyelid. He was able to write the book with the help of a patient scribe who would literally have him go through the alphabet, letter by letter, and indicate what he wanted to write. Although the book is not lengthy, what I have read is very beautiful and I am sure that it took a long time to write. It's amazing what can be accomplished by people that others think are "worthless". (Incidentally, my husband is high-functioning autistic so I can relate to some of what you describe in the book review.)

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  2. Thank you for your comment! I haven't read Diving Bell but I shall put it on my list. My wife seems to agree with me that I might be autistic...but we're not sure. Thank you...A.

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