Sunday, March 23, 2014

What I'm Reading: The Reason I Jump

The Reason I Jump was written by Naoki Higashida, a thirteen-year-old Japanese boy with autism.  Though unable to verbalize his thoughts in normal speech, his mother created something called the "alphabet grid" that allows him to communicate.  He has both a keyboard version for typing on the computer and a cardboard version he carries around with him.  The alphabet grid contains the English letters in the middle, with numerous common Japanese symbols around the edges, and by pointing at the appropriate symbol he can hold conversations with others and make his thoughts and wishes known.

It's a little hard to classify this book.  It's part-memoir, although as a young teen Naoki hasn't had much life experience to relate.  It also contains some short stories that Naoki has written to illustrate what life is like for those with autism.  But mostly, it's a series of questions followed by a paragraph or two explaining the questions he most often encounters about his condition.

For instance, in answering why he's not able to hold a conversation or even answer simple questions, he explains that he is able to form words.  It's just that if somebody asks him a question verbally, he has to process the question, formulate an answer, and say the answer out loud, performing all those steps consciously where most people do it automatically.  By the time he manages to get a response out, the conversation has moved on or ended completely!  To the other person, he appears non-responsive, even though in his own mind he understood the question perfectly.  Basically, even his native language is like a foreign tongue to Naoki.

Similarly, he addresses questions regarding his sudden and jerky movements, his repetitious behaviors, his sense of time, and many other topics.  It's all quite reasonable once you read his explanation for them.  Many of his activities that seem odd to others really act as a relief valve for him.

I find his answer regarding the reason he melts down or throws tantrums to be revealing.  He writes that internally, he is as mature as any other thirteen-year-old.  But because others treat him as a little child all the time, and because his own brain and body so rarely cooperate with his intentions, his life is a never-ending frustration.  It is his belief that anybody would react the way he does if subjected to the same level of stress he is.  (I am paraphrasing his words here, but I think this is an accurate characterization.)

The book is easy to read and immensely interesting.  Most readers should be able to finish it off in an hour or two.  My wife tells me that The Reason I Jump  is increasingly found on high-school required reading lists, which seems like a sensible addition.  Considering the amount of insight Naoki provides about autism, a condition that many consider inscrutable, and the amount of sympathy he generates for the autistic, I would say nearly everybody should read this book.  I might add, by reading about Naoki's very non-standard brain, even non-autistic readers will likely learn more about how their own minds work.

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