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 head of podcasts at the New Statesman. She writes a newsletter about podcasts.

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

The University Challenge final. Photo: BBC iPlayer
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Why University Challenge is deliberately asking more questions about women

Question setters and contestants on how the show finally began to gender-balance its questions – and whether it’s now harder as a result.

University Challenge has long had a gender problem. When the show first started airing in 1962, some Oxbridge colleges were still refusing to admit women as undergraduates; in the decades since, women have been consistently outnumbered by men, with all-male teams still a regular occurrence. Those women that did appear were all too regularly criticised and objectified in equal measure by audiences: notable contestants like Hannah Rose Woods, Emma Johnson, Samantha Buzzard and Sophie Rudd have experienced intense media scrutiny and criticised the sexism of the show and audiences. In recent years, sexism rows have dogged the show.

How satisfying, then, to see two women carrying their teams in last night’s final: Rosie McKeown for winners St John’s, Cambridge, and Leonie Woodland for runners-up Merton, Oxford. Both secured the majority of points for their teams – McKeown with visible delight, Woodland looking unsure even as she delivered correct answer after correct answer.

But there is another site of sexism on University Challenge, one that earns less column inches: the questions. Drawing on all areas of history, science, language, economics and culture, the questions often concern notable thinkers, artists, scientists, and sportspeople. Of course, our society’s patriarchal hierarchies of achievement have meant that the subjects of these questions are mostly men. General knowledge is, after all, a boys’ club.

Over the course of this 2017-8 series, though, I noticed a shift. More women than ever seemed to be making their way into the questions, at times with deliberate reference to the inherent sexism of their lack of cultural prominence. On 5 February, there was a picture round devoted to female composers, with contestents asked to identify Clara Schumann, Ethel Smyth, Rachel Portman and Bjork from photographs, who, Paxman explained, are all “women that are now listed in the EdExcel A Level music syllabus after the student Jessy McCabe petitioned the exam board in 2015.” Episodes have included bonus rounds on “prominent women” (the writer Lydia Davis, the pilot Lydia Litvyak, and the golfer Lydia Ko), “women born in the 1870s and 80s” (Rosa Luxemburg, Elizabeth Arden and Vanessa Bell), and the female philosophers Mary Midgely, Philippa Foot and Iris Murdoch.

Elsewhere, questions raise a knowing eyebrow at the patriarchal assumptions behind so much of intellectual endeavour. A music round on famous rock bands quoted the music critic Kelefa Sanneh’s definition “rockism”: “the belief that white macho guitar music is superior to all other forms of popular music”. Another, on opera, quoted Catherine Clement’s Opera, Or The Undoing of Women, which explores how traditional opera plots frequently feature “the infinitely repetitive spectacle of a woman who dies”. “Your music bonuses are three such operas,” Paxman said dryly, to audience laughter.

University Challenge’s questions editor Thomas Benson confirms that there has been a deliberate attempt to redress a gender imbalance in the quiz. “About three years ago, a viewer wrote in to point out that a recent edition of the programme had contained very few questions on women,” he explains. “We agreed and decided to do something about it.”

Last night’s final included a picture round on artists with works concerning motherhood (Mary Casatt, Lousie Bourgeois, Leanora Carrington and Frida Kahlo) and a music round on Marin Alsop, the first woman to ever conduct the Last Night of the Proms, as well as sets of bonuses on the American writer Willa Kather and Byzantine historian and princess Anna Komnene.

Former winner Hannah Rose Woods is delighted by the increase in such questions. “I think it’s fantastic!” she tells me. “These things are really important in changing people’s perceptions about women in the past, and the way women’s contributions to science and the arts have often been written out of history. We need to keep challenging the idea of the White Male Canon.”

Last night’s winner Rosie McKeown says that while she didn’t necessarily notice a deliberate attempt to gender balance the questions, she was “very pleased with the quality of those questions that did come up”.

“Although it wasn’t in one of our matches,” she tells me, “I thought the picture round on female composers was especially good for highlighting women’s achievements.”

For all the enthusiasm for these questions, in the studio they’re often met with blank stares. While University Challenge questions are broad and imaginatively posed, there are some reliable revision topics and techniques: from Nobel laureates and the years of their wins to identifying famous paintings and classical music excerpts. McKeown says she has been a religious viewer of the show since she was 11 years old, and admits to watching reruns of the show to prepare. Shift the kinds of answers you might be looking for, and teams may struggle.

“Do we know any female British composers?” Leonie Woodland said weakly, looking at a picture of Ethel Smyth. Trying to come up with a female Muslim Nobel laureate, one contestant desperately suggested Aung San Suu Kyi. Asked to provide a first name linking an American concert pianist with the sister of Lazarus one male contestant still buzzed in with “Daniel”.

“Even if we didn’t always get them right,” McKeown tells me, citing that round on female philosophers, which saw them pass on every question, as an example, “it was great to see so many important female figures represented.”

“I don't think the questions about women necessarily affected our performance, but it’s certainly a very good thing that they were there and I hope that they’ll arouse people’s interest in the women featured and in their achievements.”

Benson believes that it hasn’t had a significant effect on performance. “The great majority of the questions that feature women are no different to any others, in that they sit firmly within the realm of standard academic general knowledge.”

He notes that they often refer to historical and background details, citing sets of bonuses on Canadian novelist Ruth Ozeki and British physicist Hertha Ayrton, which both teams answered correctly in full. “Though Ozeki and Ayrton may not be household names, the questions are definitely answerable and deal with central themes in their work and achievements.”

It’s easy to brush off the significance of a fairly geeky Monday night BBC quiz show, but University Challenge still regularly pulls in three million viewers. In any case, a show like University Challenge has a cultural significance that outweighs its viewing figures. It helps to shape our understanding of which subjects are intellectual or important, which are history’s most notable achievements, and who is worth learning about. To ignore questions of identity is to risk intellectual laziness, relying on tired ideas of canonical figures – or worse, supremacist propaganda, privileging the achievements of white men over all others.

Quite aside from making for less predictable and more enjoyable television, by including questions on the likes of Stevie Smith, Nella Larsen, Gertrude Stein, Myra Hess, Margaret Mead, and Beryl Bainbridge, University Challenge can diversify the mental encyclopaedias of its viewers, be it a tweed-wearing 60-year-old in Leamington Spa or an 11-year-old like Rosie McKeown with her own dreams of one day competing. It has a responsibility to do so.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.