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.