Heard Without a Voice

The PsycheMedia

Autism is a huge mystery. For several decades, scientists have been trying to understand the autistic mind. Parents of autistic children have written about their own experiences in the hope of helping others.

Then there is the occasional book written by a person with autism, such as The Autistic Brain by Temple Grandin who has Asperger’s Syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism; or Congratulations! It’s Asperger’s Syndrome by Jen Birch, the autobiographical case of a woman diagnosed with autism at age 43. Such books are valuable because they provide a doorway into the lives and experiences of autistic people.

The Reason I Jump is even more inspiring because it is a memoir written by a 13-year-old nonverbal autistic boy named Naoki Higashida. He accomplished this by using a “Japanese alphabet grid,” a device not properly described in the book, although his mother is said to have invented the grid to give him more independent communication.

The book is written in one- to three-page chapters, each headed by a general question about autism. Naoki answers each question briefly, in what feels like complete honesty. Because of this the book takes on a surprisingly fast pace. However, the compactness of each chapter is understandable because of Naoki’s circumstances. Although not thoroughly explained, it is clear that using the grid is a painstakingly slow process, which explains the short length of each chapter.

Throughout the book, it struck me that Naoki completely understands that the non-autistic world sees him as strange. He explains his actions with lighthearted flair, answering even the most sensitive questions, such as,“Why do you speak in that peculiar way?” or, “Why do you move your arms and legs in that awkward way?”

With humor, understanding, and grace, Naoki describes how he can’t control his own actions even though they appear strange to the “normal world.” For example, he says “My problem is that as soon as I try to run fast, I start thinking about how I ought to be moving my arms and legs, and then my whole body freezes up.” His account of his daily struggles — repetitive movements, wandering off, fearing loud noises — are heartbreaking, yet his tone is uplifting.

One minor point that I found distracting was Naoki’s tendency to generalize his experience as representative of all autistic people. Although I have never met any person on the autistic spectrum, I know that the spectrum is vast, ranging from people who appear to be completely nonfunctional, to people who are fully functional but display awkward social behavior. However, Naoki often uses words like “we,” “our,” or “us,” suggesting that everyone who falls on the autistic spectrum feels the same way about their life experiences. He says, “We’re anxious about what kind of problems we’ll trigger. People who have effortless control over themselves and their bodies never really experience this fear.” As it is so rare to have the voice of a young nonverbal autistic person heard, I found it easy to disregard these generalizations.

I thought The Reason I Jump was an extremely inspiring book, not only because it was written by someone with autism, but also because the writer was a 13-year-old boy, which is amazing in itself. I gave it four and a half stars because it gives the voiceless a voice. It shows the world what it is like to be nonverbal a boy with autism. David Mitchell, one of the translators of the book, who is also the father of a nonverbal autistic child wrote: “It is no exaggeration to say that The Reason I Jump allowed me to round a corner in our relationship with our son.” Parents of autistic children, especially those who are nonverbal, face challenges to understand their child and build a relationship. This book is a gift to such parents. It is also very valuable to anyone who reads it and, in particular, kids within his age group, who have a tendency to make fun of behavior that they don’t fully comprehend.

Zeeshan Hassan-Andoh is in 7th Grade at Saint Ann’s School. He is of Pakistani and Ghanaian origin. He enjoys travel, reading, writing, architecture, and drawing.

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