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27/05/2015
BBC Radio 4
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David Mitchell, award-winning author of Cloud Atlas, translates and introduces The Reason I Jump – an extraordinary book by a Japanese teenager with severe autism, Naoki Higashida. The Reason I Jump is Radio 4's Book of the Week, and can be heard from Mon 24 June at 9.45am

David Mitchell talks about how Naoki's book helped him make sense of his son's autism.

After doing the school run this morning I went to our local supermarket. It being early, and West Cork being West Cork, I chatted with the checkout lady about the likelihood of rain, the futility of weather forecasts, and how the long summer holidays cause problems for parents juggling work with childcare – especially, the checkout lady added as she scanned my cartons of smoothie, for the parents of kids with special needs, like her niece. 'It's so sad,' she said, grimacing and shaking her head, 'it's very, very sad.' I said something about how, if you have a kid with special needs, you can't sit around all day thinking how sad things are. 'That's right,' the checkout lady agreed, 'you've got to confront it. But it's still sad.' Only later did I work out what I wanted to say: that pity is better than mockery but it's still not great; that sympathy is better, if it engenders tolerance; but that what we really crave is public understanding.

A generous slab of understanding is offered by Naoki Higashida's concise book, The Reason I Jump. The author is diagnosed with autism and speech continues to be difficult for him, so he 'typed' the book by pointing to letters on a cardboard alphabet grid when he was only 13 years old. It uses a Q&A format to explore many of the confusing aspects of autism, and helped me a great deal in understanding what was going on in my own young son's head: Why do kids with autism bang their heads on the floor? Flap their hands in front of their faces? Display emotions that have nothing to do with the context, and then vanish a moment later? Many of Higashida's answers were of immediate practical value, but the book also discusses questions I'd been too caught up in the 24/7 grind to consider: How do people with autism perceive time, memory and beauty? Who and what is 'normal' and why, and how do people with autism think of autism – and us neuro-typical lot? These passages I found fascinating, not least because they encouraged me to consider many of my own unexamined attitudes.

People with autism react physically to feelings of happiness and sadness.

By offering understanding, The Reason I Jump offers hope. The book dissolves many negative items of received wisdom about autism – not least that people with autism are incapable of empathy. The book is written with deep empathy for others, as well as humour, analysis, compassion, insight and dignity, and includes a heartstring-strumming short story in which many of his ideas about autism are framed in fiction. There is no self-pity or resentment. Without downplaying the challenges of life with autism, Higashida proves that these challenges derive less from hearts and brains that are 'miswired' or 'defective', and more from the inability to communicate what is in those same hearts and brains. The Reason I Jump reminds us that people living with special needs should not be viewed as drains on resources or 'very, very sad', but as human beings whose inner lives are as complex and subtle as anyone else's. They absorb, they imagine, they aspire, they think. They are heroes. When an exhausted carer knows this, he or she sees the point in staying patient and focussed and not giving up.

Adaptor David Mitchell on how much pleasure he got from translating Naoki's amazing book.

My wife and I translated the book from Japanese to English, but in a sense even the original is a translation, from Autism to Japanese – as Naoki Higashida says, people with autism have no mother-tongue. We're delighted that Radio 4 have chosen The Reason I Jump as its book of the week, because it lends a voice to people who often have none – what a brilliant use of radio. We hope other parents, relatives and friends of people with autism can benefit from the book's gifts – including aunts who work in supermarkets. We hope, more generally, that The Reason I Jump helps to illuminate what is a common but dimly-understood area of the human condition.

Having translated Naoki's book, David Mitchell describes how it must be to have autism.

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  • Comment number 88. Posted by tsmartini

    on 3 Jul 2013 16:50

    My mother in law in the UK brought this to my attention given that I'm living in Canada and have a non verbal 9 year old son on the spectrum. I really enjoyed this preliminary look at the book, though I do take the point that it's always difficult to know whether all children on the spectrum have exactly the same experience -- it may be somewhat similar to talking about 'Europeans' as though they were all the same.

    For those interested in this type of 'inside look' you may also want to have a look at the book 'Carly's Voice', co-written by a young Canadian woman, Carly Fleishman, and her father Arthur. The first part of the book is written by Carly's father, and describes Carly's early years and the parenting challenges that have been well articulated by David Mitchell (self injury, smearing feces, inability to sleep). The second part of the book is Carly's, and offers her own insights about her experiences. I think that, like Annie, many initially believed that this was an FC-like hoax. However, like Naoki, she's been demonstrated many times in public to be the author of her own text, and her well-publicized bat mizvah speech was 'voiced' by Ellen Degeneres. In addition to the writing, Carly has also attempted to give people insight into her sensory experience through a short 2-minute film (Carly's Cafe) about what it's like for her to be in a coffee shop - it won an award at Cannes.

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  • Comment number 87. Posted by MotivatedMum

    on 2 Jul 2013 23:17

    Absolutely Brilliant! A very useful educational tool for anyone working alongside children or adults with autistic spectrum condition. My son, now 13, was diagnosed age 4 with ASD and whilst he has always been verbal he struggles to communicate via conversation unless it is on a 1:1 and the listener has the patience of a saint in our crazy fast paced world. As a mother I have often felt the only one to truly understand his needs and this has been exhausting. My son is one of the hardest working most endearing and least understood of his peers. His ability to try and fit in and appear ‘normal’ shows no bounds but the effort to do this does show later in his outbursts in private at home. I have only just recently started trying to explain his differences to him and he is struggling to understand although he has always known he was different. Working closely with school we are slowly getting there. (As someone else touched on earlier –he always gets there in the end but just not at the same time or in the same way as the so-called neurotypicals). He has cleverly decided to try to use his ‘condition’ as an excuse for his ‘bad’ behaviour which I am having none of! This is the latest hurdle.
    The deeply entrenched attitude in this country to anyone who veers from the norm is hard to comes to terms with when your child is diagnosed, labelled , boxed and despatched into the world of special needs. For me this a despicable (sorry just been to see the film) way to treat our future Mozarts,Lewis Carrolls, Darwins & Einsteins. What potential is being wasted by our narrow minded attitude to disability and difference. My aim with my son is to make him feel proud of the way his brain works differently - which I shall do.
    As for ‘cures’ for autism I have a very strong view on this. I am sure children on the spectrum have too. When we talk about curing autism that really implies that it is a disease. This is not good. Of course I have been down this path and my experience has led me to some amazing places. I thank the Sonrise program for helping me to rekindle the appreciation, understanding and love for my child that had been ruined by the statementing and diagnostic process and subsequent to that the Brainchild Developmental Program that made such a huge difference in reducing my sons sensory overload. He is still who he is but finds living in this world so much easier because of it. I smile when I think that he now has ‘friends’, attends mainstream secondary school and walks to school by himself. At one time he may have ended up in a special school and I know I would have lost my son forever if that had happened.
    I also need to comment on the lady who questioned the validity of the information....Without people questioning techniques, drug effectiveness, treatments and theories we would live in a crazy world True Science depends upon the doubters to find the pitfalls and keep the scientists in check! Well done for sticking your neck out.
    Please read my blog stories and those of other parents on the Brainchild blog and join us. Thanks again , I shall look forward to the podcast.

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  • Comment number 86. Posted by Roo

    on 2 Jul 2013 12:52

    How inspiring and moving and beautiful was this! I have just heard back from a friend, with a family with Aspergers, a form of Autism, something she also has. She was deeply moved and said it resonated with her so much. We have a child who is very able to use metaphor and simile, is intensely imaginative ( though not as good at understanding people's emotions) but who seems to struggle in the same ways as the author of this book, restless and uncomfortable in crowds, unable to express herself verbally very well, soothed by nature, loving accuracy and routine, utterly honest, thinking her thoughts aloud ...and just as adorable! She possibly has Aspergers, and I think many people in this bracket, who are often creative, artistic or inventive, would understand every drop of honey that comes from the words of this incredible young man. Thank you for bringing him to us.

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  • Comment number 85. Posted by Nickie - Host

    on 1 Jul 2013 17:24

    Hi woofhound - we only have rights to offer the programme as 'listen again' for 7 days, however see above comment for info on the audio download. The clips in this blog post and on the 'The Reason I Jump' page will be available forever.

  • Comment number 84. Posted by Nickie - Host

    on 1 Jul 2013 15:18

    Again, thanks everyone for your comments.

    For those asking about a podcast - we can't podcast the programme because of copyright issues.

    However, the audiobook will be available to download from the 4th of July on Audible and iTunes. This version will be unabridged and read by David and Tom Judd.

  • Comment number 83. Posted by woofhound

    on 1 Jul 2013 14:04

    Please, BBC, keep this online for more than the Radio 4 statutory week to "listen again." There are so many people with whom I'd love to share this work.

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  • Comment number 82. Posted by Jan Mather

    on 1 Jul 2013 11:42

    I loved listening to this book - my husband and I spend so long trying to fathom out our very severely autistic 21year old son's behaviour - why he headbangs and bites his hand, why he is so clever. This book has helped us see that what we do is going to be effective over time. My son is beautiful and wonderful but he is so troubled by his autism - I want more than anything to make his life better. You may be interested in this link - http://www.norikoogawa.co.uk/profile/outreach/
    I am proud that my dear friend Noriko Ogawa set up this charity, named after my son Jamie.

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  • Comment number 81. Posted by anne

    on 1 Jul 2013 10:01

    This is a marvellous choice for Book of the Week, thank you. I have no family connections with children with autism, but am a retired teacher, and have stayed
    interested in childrens' development and differences. This book is a revelation, and should be heard and read by everybody. We all need this understanding. So, please, as mentioned by a previous contributor, make it into a podcast.
    Thank you again for a great choice, read and presented beautifully.

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  • Comment number 80. Posted by Rose

    on 1 Jul 2013 00:04

    The was such an enlightening series of programmes.
    My son - who also had Down's Syndrome - was on the autistic spectrum. Heart-breakingly he died last year at the age of 18. Harry's having Down's Syndrome and autism I accepted - it was part of who he was and how he interacted with the world - but this series of programmes brought understanding.
    Each described action evoked a mental picture of Harry and for the first time I felt I understood why such actions were necessary or important to him.
    I would like to thank Naoki, David Mitchell and his wife and the commissioners and makers of this wonderful series of programmes. And can I please repeat the request made my Ronnie that these programmes are made available to download. There are many family members, carers and friends out there who will not have heard these programmes the first time around and together with their autistic colleagues could so stand to benefit.

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  • Comment number 79. Posted by Louise Mum of 2 boys

    on 30 Jun 2013 08:25

    I listened to all 5 parts of this book and it was a revelation. I smiled at some parts and cried at some parts but I think it is the most amazing book. I have an autistic son who although not severely autistic he displays many of the behaviours and does many of the things that the author talks about. I feel today that I have more understanding of my son than I did before listening to this. I also got my husband to listen last night and he thanked me for doing this as he feels the same as me. Thank you David Mitchell for translating this and Radio 4 for broadcasting it. We will be ordering the book and giving copies to others. No amount of experts could describe the autistic experience as well as this young man. I think this will stay with me forever and will be invaluable. Thank you thank you thank you.

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