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.

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

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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage