Naoki Hagashida was, at the time of writing The Reason I Jump in 2007, 15 years old. What drew author David Mitchell (of Cloud Atlas fame) and his wife KA Yoshida, to the book was the fact that here was an autistic boy explaining what it was like to be autistic; which, given that Mitchell has an autistic child of his own, was ‘a revelatory godsend’. In the introduction, he tries to explain how futile the kindness of others ultimately is and also how little help the majority of special needs books on the subject are (autism being as individual as the child). ‘It felt as if,’ Mitchell tells us, ‘for the first time, our own son was talking to us about what was happening inside his head, through Naoki’s words.’
But Naoki’s words do not come easy.
‘Naoki’s autism is severe enough to make spoken communication pretty much impossible even now. But thanks to an ambitious teacher and his own persistence, he learnt to spell out words directly onto an alphabet grid. A Japanese alphabet grid is a table of the basic forty Japanese hiragana letters, and its English counterpart is a copy of the QWERTY keyboard drawn on to a card and laminated.’
So The Reason I Jump is, in some ways, as much of a bridge across a previously unbridgeable divide as The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, albeit with arguably greater uses in the world.
Largely framed around 58 questions, some of which circle a kernel of difficulty (why autism appears to make people behave in a such an apparently contrary way), The Reason I Jump is startling, vivid and utterly unique in the view it gives us of what it is like to be autistic. Why do you talk so loudly and so weirdly? Why do you ask the same questions over and over? Why do you echo questions? Why do you do things you have been asked not to do? Why can’t you have a proper conversation? Why don’t you make eye contact? Why do you dislike holding hands? In many ways, it reads like a cartographer explaining the world to someone who has never seen a map, so profoundly different is the world conjured up.
Naoki’s words are delivered with a simple clarity that often masks the scale of what is being revealed. Here he is talking about flashback memories:
‘We do remember what we did, when, where, who we did it with and things like this, but these memories are all scattershot and never connected in the right order. The trouble with scattered memories is that sometimes they replay themselves in my head as if they had only just taken place – and when this happens, the emotions I felt originally all come rushing back to me, like a sudden storm.’
And here, attempting to explain why he sometimes might appear to make a huge fuss over something that he knows is actually not that big a deal:
‘When I see I’ve made a mistake, my mind shuts down. I cry, I scream, I make a huge fuss, and I can’t think straight about anything any more… It must be hard for you to understand why this could make me so unhappy. And even to me, I know really it’s not such a big deal. But it’s almost impossible for me to keep my emotions contained. Once I’ve made a mistake, the fact of it starts rushing towards me like a tsunami. And then, like trees or houses being destroyed by the tsunami, I get destroyed by the shock. I get swallowed up in the moment, and can’t tell the right response from the wrong response.’
The Reason I Jump is also interesting, though, because it offers us a glimpse into Naoki’s imaginative world with a small number of stories Naoki has written included, which include a wry riff on the old Hare & Tortoise story and a longer piece called ‘I’m Right Here’ about a child that dies.
Any Cop?: Whilst I can only begin to imagine how useful this book will be to parents of autistic children and care-givers, it stands as a genuinely informative and compelling read in its own right for anyone who just comes to the book via the David Mitchell connection.