The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida: Autism from the inside

Naoki Higashida has written a sparkling collection of Q&As, reflections and stories which describes like with autism from a first-hand perspective.

The Reason I Jump
Naoki Higashida
Translated by K A Yoshida and David Mitchell
Sceptre, 192pp, £12.99
 
When we think of autism, we think of solitude – of the child who prefers to play alone, away from the hurly-burly of the rest of the class, or the adult who would rather not join in with everyone else this weekend, thanks all the same. Collectively, we have been trained by our understanding – or lack thereof – to think that leaving autistic people alone is for the best, that it is what they want.
 
In The Reason I Jump, Naoki Higashida shows us how wrong we are. Shows rather than tells, that is, for although Higashida is autistic and was only 13 years old when he produced this book, his words flow smoothly, with no hectoring quality to his tone. His frequent pleas for understanding and patience as he tries to answer such questions as “Why do people with autism talk so loudly and weirdly?” and “Why are your facial expressions so limited?” never cease to humble you as you read.
 
Part question-and-answer text and part short story, The Reason I Jump has been translated into English by the twice Booker-shortlisted author David Mitchell and his wife, K A Yoshida. The couple first came across it in the original Japanese and it offered them a crucial breakthrough in understanding what their autistic son was experiencing. As Mitchell writes in his introduction: “It felt, as if for the first time, our own son was talking to us about what was happening inside his head, through Naoki’s words.” Now, by translating it, they hope to share the insights it provides more widely.
 
Fictional representations of autism-like traits, such as in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Dustin Hoffman’s Oscar-winning turn in the 1988 film Rain Man, make us think we know what to expect when we encounter the real thing. But as Mitchell explained in a recent piece for the Guardian, the avalanche of articles and books on dealing with autism that he and his wife received from well-meaning friends and family when their son received his diagnosis only emphasised our collective ignorance. Most advice bears little relation to reality. How do you explain that your son has bruises on his head because he likes to bang it on the floor, hard, up to a dozen times a day? A wise therapist advised Mitchell to put a foot between his son’s head and the floor “so the impact is softened” but it took Higashida’s writing to help the frantic parents understand why their son felt compelled to hurt himself in this way.
 
Every page dismantles another preconception about autism. For a start, Higashida writes mainly in the plural – we need your help, we need your understanding – as if he is not alone but part of a great community of silent children around the world. He explains that it’s physically painful for him to hold back his “weird voice” (that loud, thick, overworked diction that autistic people sometimes use) because it feels “as if I’m strangling my own throat”. And the concept of time makes him anxious, because although he can see the hands on the clock move, he can’t feel the passing seconds rushing past him like the landscape does when he runs.
 
At first glance, the book can be read as a manual for autism and it is certainly helpful in that regard. We assume that autism is a disease of the interior – a mysterious malfunction that happens inside the sufferer’s head. Higashida, with what I imagine to be a wry smile on his lips, uses both his answers and his stories to show us yet again how wrong we are. He explains that trying to control his body is “like remote-controlling a faulty robot” and that every aspect of autism that affects his mind has a corollary in his physical existence. If you try, as you read, to link your mind to his as he describes his thoughts, you start to get little hints of what it must be like to have no sensation of where your legs and arms are attached or to have limbs that feel as if they are “a mermaid’s rubbery tail”. It isn’t pleasant.
 
Higashida’s language is precise and has a poetic quality that elevates it far beyond a self-help book for the parents of autistic children. His fictional stories, also included in this book, vary in length from a few lines to dozens of pages and are united by their beautiful simplicity. They all share a strong single theme, namely, that even if living is different and difficult, you can still find companionship and happiness. As he proves in his answer to the question implied by the book’s title – “Why do you jump?” – Higashida is grasping at something universal about the human mind: “When I’m jumping, it’s as if my feelings are going upwards to the sky. Really, my urge to be swallowed up by the sky is enough to make my heart quiver.”
 
Once you understand how Higashida managed to write this book, you lose your heart to him. It’s a slim little volume, but in order to write a single word he had to select and point to each character on an alphabet grid drawn on paper, while someone sat beside him transcribing the words he formed. His autism is such that dictation was out of the question and computers were too distracting. Every letter was painstakingly chosen and deliberately selected. With all the effort that has gone into putting these words before our eyes, it’s impossible still to think that autistic people prefer their loneliness. Higashida has shown us that they are just waiting for us to have the patience to listen to what they want to say.
Autism has been represented in fiction, but seldom has a first-hand account emerged. Photograph: Getty Images.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How to make a saint

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Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.