Tag Archives: autism

Review of The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida, translated by K.A. Yoshida and David Mitchell

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I heard this book narrated on Radio 4 and was transfixed. Normally the radio is the background for the necessary loathed household chores I have to perform – but during that week, I sat down and listened. So it was a no-brainer to get hold of the book and read it for myself. Most books – for me – provide a really enjoyable way to escape the everyday. But there are a hatful of books that are inspirational, thought-provoking and genuinely life changing. I’m a tad allergic to books which trumpet this aspect – mostly because they’re not. However, The Reason I Jump is the real article.

reason I jumpI have to declare an interest – several years ago I looked after the son of my closest friend when she had to return to work while he was still very tiny, after he became extremely distressed when left with the childminder. He settled into my arms and we bonded… I love babies. I’m good with babies. And he was a sweetheart, so cuddly and affectionate. So bright-eyed and bubbly. Initially he hit all his milestones, but then around a year old, his progress seemed to falter and he started withdrawing. And sliding backwards… Anyone who knows about autism firsthand will, doubtless, recognise the whole wretched sequence. It was devastating when he was finally diagnosed. His parents have worked tirelessly on a range of therapies and he has made marvellous progress. His mother is currently writing a book about their experiences together.

What is it like to have autism? How can we know what a person – especially a child – with autism is thinking and feeling, so that we can help them?

This remarkable book, written by Naoki Higashida when he was only thirteen, provides some answers. Severely autistic, Naoki learnt to communicate via pointing to letters on a ‘cardboard keyboard’ – and what he has to say gives an exceptional insight into an autistically-wired mind. He explains the often baffling behaviour of people with autism, invites us to share his perception of time, life, beauty and nature, and offers an unforgettable short story. Proving beyond doubt that people with autism do not lack imagination, humour or empathy. Naoki makes a heartfelt plea for our patience and compassion.

For David Mitchell, The Reason I Jump provided an invaluable insight into his own autistic son’s mind. He and his wife ,K.A. Yoshida, have translated the book in the hope that it will benefit others in the same way, and dispel some of the widely held myths about autism. For all readers, Naoki Higashida offers a rare opportunity to view the world from a fresh and fascinating perspective.

The book is structured by posing questions that Naoki answers – questions that any of us who have cared for someone with autism have yearned to ask. While David Mitchell’s foreword gives the best description of this mysterious disorder that I have ever read. Naoki’s answers are direct and passionate – that’s what reverberates through the whole book for me… The intensity of his emotion. And yet, looking at his blank face, his avoidance of eye contact, his silence – Naoki finds speech very difficult – we would assume that his emotions are all locked down and he simply doesn’t care all that much about the rest of us… That is the heartbreaking aspect of this disorder – and why this book is so vitally important.

For carers struggling to cope, the sense that an autistic sufferer is indifferent to their efforts in trying to break through is exhausting and discouraging. Exhausted and discouraged carers don’t do a good job – with the best will in the world, your bleakness imparts itself to everyone around you. Especially to the person trapped inside themselves, with no way out to show how much he needs patience and optimism. Which is why words like inspirational and life-changing really do make sense when discussing The Reason I Jump.

Though he isn’t the first person to do it, I’m still awestruck when I consider that this book was written letter by painful letter, with thirteen-year-old Naoki pointing to each one, while someone copied it all down. If autism has touched your life, you owe it to yourself to read this book. Or maybe you feel fed up with the daily doses of ugliness on the news and need evidence of just how enduring the human spirit can be when faced with immense difficulties.  Do yourself a favour, get hold of The Reason I Jump – and perhaps you will also want to jump high to reach the sky in the knowledge that you share DNA with Naoki Higashida.
10/10

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Review of Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon

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‘Absolutely compelling’ is Greg Bear’s verdict on the front cover. Generally I take those credits with a pinch of salt – but this time around, he is spot on. This unusual, thought-provoking near-future science fiction novel is the best thing Moon has written to date – and the lady is no slouch.

speedofdarkLou is different to ‘normal’ people. He interacts with the world in a way they do not understand. He might not see the things they see, but he also sees many things they do not. Lou is autistic.

One of his skills is an ability to find patterns in data: extraordinary, complex, beautiful patterns that not even the most powerful computers can comprehend. The company he works for has made considerable sums of money from Lou’s work. But now they want Lou to change – to become ‘normal’ like themselves. And he must face the greatest challenge of his life. To understand the speed of dark.

Moon has achieved a very difficult feat – she has managed to get right inside Lou’s head and give us an insight into someone who processes information in quite a different way, while continuing to capture our sympathy and understanding. Lou’s characterisation is masterful. The way we perceive the near future through his eyes and begin to appreciate the difficulties that he constantly has to overcome – his acute sense of smell and sensitivity to sound; his constant uncertainty as to whether he has accurately decoded the subliminal signals people give off; the way he cycles and recycles through ideas that concern him… I used to care for a little boy with autism and I found Lou completely convincing.

However as with the very best science fiction, this book is so much more than an entertaining, escapist read. This novel raises issues that are starting to smack society across the chops – issues that we should all be discussing and debating both at a personal and political level.  Of course, being the limited creatures we are, instead we obsess about the daily habits of a handful of celebrities and it falls to books like this one to raise this far more important matters. If a cure for autism does turn up, should high functioning autistic adults who are wholly capable of leading productive, independent lives consider undergoing such treatments? Especially as we’re talking about tampering with the brain…

And while Moon has selected autism as her example having raised an autistic son, this argument is already raging amongst the deaf community about cochlea implants. Many deaf people feel very threatened at the prospect of a cure that will remove them from the community in which they have grown up and with which they identify themselves – to the extent that they refuse to allow their deaf children have an implant. Others feel that deliberately preventing their children from taking advantage of a cure is being irresponsible, if not outright abusive.

I’m conscious that I’ve made this novel sound rather worthy and dull – and it’s not. Because Lou has several other issues to overcome, in addition to coping with this overarching challenge, and, besides, Moon isn’t a writer that does boring or pedestrian plots. So the result is a gripping, intelligent read that leaves you thinking about the issues it addresses long after you’ve finished it. Try it. It’s certainly one of my outstanding reads of the year – and one I’m going to continue recommending to anyone who’ll listen…
10/10