Translated by K.A. Yoshida and David Mitchell; Introduction by David Mitchell
Random House, 2013. 176 pages.
Naoki Higashida wants you to understand why he loves asking the same questions over and over: “Repeating these is great fun. It’s like a game of catch with a ball. Unlike the words we’re ordered to say, repeating questions we already know the answers to can be a pleasure—it’s playing with sound and rhythm.” He wants you to appreciate why he sometimes has trouble expressing himself: “it’s because the words coming out of my mouth are the only ones I can access at the time. These words are either available because I’m always using them or because they left a lasting impression on me at some point in the past.” And wants you to know the reason he jumps: “When I’m jumping, it’s as if my feelings are going upward to the sky. Really, my urge to be swallowed up by the sky is enough to make my heart quiver. When I’m jumping, I can feel my body parts really well, too—my bounding legs and my clapping hands—and that makes me feel so, so good.”
Higashida is a Japanese teenager with autism, and his book, The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism, has recently captivated the attention of both academic and popular audiences. Published in 2007 in Japan, it was translated into English in 2013. Since, The Reason I Jump has become A New York Times bestseller, been featured on The Daily Show, and named among the best books of the year by, among others, NPR and The Wall Street Journal. At the time of its writing, Higashida was almost entirely nonverbal; he composed the text by spelling out words with the aid of a printed table of forty basic Japanese characters.
This intensive labor alone makes the text a remarkable achievement, but The Reason I Jump is more than just an object of curiosity. The majority of the book consists of very short chapters conceived as responses to questions like “Why do people with autism talk so loudly and weirdly?,” “Do you prefer to be on your own?,” and “When you look at something, what do you see first?” In bright and unselfconscious prose, Higashida answers, explaining, for example, that some autistic people flap their fingers in front of their faces because “light that reaches us like this feels soft and gentle, like moonlight. But ‘unfiltered’ direct light sort of ‘needles’ its way into the eyeballs of people with autism in sharp straight lines, so we see too many points of light. This actually makes our eyes hurt.” In other chapters, Higashida notes that—contrary to popular belief—he does not really like to be alone, that visual schedules provoke intense anxiety, and that “whenever anyone treats me as if I’m still a toddler, it really hacks me off.” Interspersed with these explanatory chapters are short stories and illustrations, the former by Higashida, the latter by artists Kai and Sunny.
Higashida’s memoir is not the only first-person account of the life of an autistic individual. Temple Grandin, the livestock expert and professor of animal science at Colorado State University, is perhaps the condition’s most famous spokesperson and has lectured and written prolifically about her experiences. Other relatively well known texts include John Elder Robinson’s Asperger’s memoir Look Me in the Eye, and less heralded works also abound: Daniel Tammet’s Born on a Blue Day, Ido Kedar’s Ido in Autism Land, Judy and Sean Barron’s There’s a Boy in Here, and Arthur and Carly Fleischmann’s Carly’s Voice, to name just a few. The Reason I Jump, however, is unique because of its author’s age, its straightforward approach, and the unusual attention it has garnered.
Higashida has a clear and compelling voice, and the book itself is beautifully produced. Striking black-and-white images of birds, leaves, and plants run throughout the text and adorn its cover. In a brief afterword, illustrators Kai and Sunny write that they were inspired by Higashida’s discussion of his exceptionally intimate relationship with nature. The two have received numerous design awards and have collaborated with such luminaries as Alexander McQueen; the aesthetic sensibility they bring to the physical form of The Reason I Jump has likely helped attract readers from beyond the usual audiences for works about disability.
It is also undeniable that—at least in the United States and Britain—the Reason I Jump owes some of its popularity to its introduction, penned by renowned British novelist David Mitchell. Best known for his 2004 novel, Cloud Atlas, Mitchell is the author of six books in total, including Black Swan Green and, most recently, The Bone Clocks. He is also the parent of an autistic son. In his introduction, Mitchell describes his own reaction to reading Higashida’s book in Japanese, recalling that “it felt, as if for the first time, our own son was talking to us about what was happening inside his head, through Naoki’s words.” Along with his wife, KA Yoshida, Mitchell translated the text for the English-speaking market, eager to help demonstrate that “locked inside the helpless-seeming autistic body is a mind as curious, subtle and complex as yours, as mine, as anyone’s.” None of this is to suggest that Higashida’s text is unworthy of the attention it has received, but rather to think through the conditions that allowed it to make inroads with an unusually broad readership. Works on disability often suffer from a lack investment from publishers, who tend to assume they have a dependable but narrow audience in the parents, families, and teachers of disabled individuals. Mitchell’s involvement brings cultural cachet, signaling that the subject might—and, in fact, does—merit broader interest.
Still, it is also important to remember that The Reason I Jump is not an academic text. Those hoping to find a thirteen year-old engaging in an explicit discussion of society’s rampant ableism or the social construction of disability will be disappointed. Scholars will also almost certainly take issue with Higashida’s occasional tendency to overgeneralize and his suggestions that autism represents a kind of atavism, that “we are a different kind of human, born with primeval senses,” redolent as it is with eugenic overtones. Still, as Mitchell reminds us in the introduction, “the author is not a guru,” he’s a kid, and Higashida’s most significant academic contribution may be the very act of writing itself.
The burgeoning field of disability studies has made one of its aims the representation of more diverse somatic, intellectual, and emotional experiences. Disabled voices of all sorts, scholars argue, have been too long absent from the critical discourse, stymieing deep discussion of disabled concerns and supporting the maintenance of misconceptions, structural barriers, and outright discrimination. As a result of both activist and scholarly efforts, however, change has begun to occur. Particularly in the past fifteen years, academic audiences have witnessed a profusion of historical and theoretical texts on disability, a substantial percentage of which have been authored by disabled individuals. Conferences within disability studies have also made concerted efforts to make themselves accessible to those with varied needs, offering ASL interpreters, rest and wellness rooms, and detailed guidelines that urge presenters to include textual and audio descriptions of all visual materials, use jargon-free language, provide large-print textual versions of spoken papers, and refrain from the use of scented products. Some conferences also feature presentations that do not hew to the standard academic format, incorporating theater, dance, documentary film, and other multi-sensory artistic products.
The Reason I Jump is yet another step in the direction of increased representation. Even though, in Mitchell’s words, writing for Higashida is “as taxing as, say, the act of carrying water in cupped palms across a bustling Times Square or Piccadilly Circus would be to you or me,” with the appropriate support, Higashida has managed to create an important, textured testament to his experience of the world. On the other hand, The Reason I Jump also suggests that we may have to go beyond conventional forms of textual representation to convey the full spectrum of human experience. Higashida’s explanatory prose is enlightening, but the The Reason I Jump would be colossally impoverished without the accompanying images and short stories—forms that, while perhaps less immediately legible to some readers, may more directly express Higashida’s world.
The book also—albeit implicitly—participates in scholarly efforts to demonstrate how the study of disability might shed light on embodied experience more broadly. Disability theorist Tobin Siebers, for example, has argued that because the material and social world is constructed around “normal” bodies, it is often difficult for non-disabled individuals to step back and examine the system. Disability, he argues, forces one to stand outside this framework, and thus disabled bodies make embodiment visible—and therefore ripe for analysis—in new ways. In essence, one of the reasons Higashida may be so successful in writing about his particular way of being in the world is that he is constantly made aware of how it differs from the majority of those who surround him.
Indeed, at its best, The Reason I Jump makes the reader consider his or her own body in new ways. When he writes about his seemingly erratic movements, Higashida explains that “both staying still and moving when we’re told to is tricky — it’s as if we’re remote-controlling a faulty robot…You can’t always tell just by looking at people with autism, but we never really feel that our bodies are our own…Stuck inside them, we’re struggling so hard to make them do what we tell them.” Elsewhere, he recalls the terrifying physical sensation of flashback memories and the comforting gravitational pull produced by a walk outside. Readers of these passages are made acutely aware of their own bodies, whether realizing the relative ease with which they have moved through the world or finding echoes of their own experience in Higashida’s.
As this small example illustrates, a move toward inclusive forms of conversation and representation will not only give disabled individuals their due, but also allow them to enhance and complicate other disciplines, theories, and realms of practice. It is already well known that Temple Grandin’s unique modes of sensory processing aided her in the design of innovative, humane equipment for the livestock industry. Even David Mitchell has spoken about the ways in which his boyhood stutter shaped the writer he became. “It’s true,” he remarked in a 2010 Paris Review interview, “that stammerers can become more adept at sentence construction. Synonyms aren’t always neatly interchangeable. Sometimes choosing word B over word A requires you to construct a different sentence to house it—and quickly, too, before your listener smells the stammering rat.” As disability scholar Susan Wendell puts it, “Like living with cerebral palsy or blindness, living with pain, fatigue, nausea, unpredictable abilities, and/or the imminent threat of death creates different ways of being that give valuable perspectives on life and the world. Thus, although most of us want to avoid suffering if possible, suffering is part of some valuable ways of being.” Through Higashida’s eyes, beauty, memory, nature, and the passage of time all look suddenly, strikingly different, a contribution he makes both despite and because of his clearly evident struggles.
Jason Taylor, the protagonist of Mitchell’s 2006 novel Black Swan Green, is also a stammerer and also—like Naoki Higashida—a thirteen-year-old boy trying to make his way through the morass of adolesence. Though mocked at school and miserable at home, Jason finds comfort and control in writing poetry, which he submits to the local parish newsletter. Always, but perhaps especially at thirteen, writing is a way of crafting the self, and The Reason I Jump reminds us that this outlet and others—art, music, even academic conference papers—should be accessible to individuals with varied abilities, needs, and gifts. These stories, though, need to be heard as much as they need to be written, and readers of The Reason I Jump will undoubtedly come away with a newly complicated sense of Higashida’s world, a fuller appreciation of the power of writing, and a more capacious understanding of the human experience.
Whitney Laemmli is a PhD candidate in the Department of History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania. She is currently completing her dissertation, “The Choreography of Everyday Life: Rudolf Laban and the Analysis of Modern Movement,” which explores how a tool for inscribing dance on paper developed in Weimar Germany found new life in the psychiatric hospitals, anthropological practice, and corporate boardrooms of mid-century America.
Baynton, Douglas. “Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History,” in The New Disability History: American Perspectives, ed. Paul K. Longmore and Lauri Umansky. New York: NYU Press, 2001.
Cooter, Roger. “The Disabled Body,” in Companion to Medicine in the Twentieth Century, edited by Roger Cooter and John Pickstone. London: Routledge, 2000.
Grandin, Temple. Thinking in Pictures. New York: Vintage, 2006.
Kudlick, Catherine J. “Disability History: Why We Need Another Other,” The American Historical Review 108 (June 2003): 763-93
Mitchell, David. “The Art of Fiction.” Interview in The Paris Review 193 (2010).
Mitchell, David. Black Swan Green. New York: Random House, 2007.
Siebers, Tobin. Disability Theory. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006.
Wendell, Susan. “Unhealthy Disabled: Treating Chronic Illnesses as Disabilities,” Hypatia 16 (2001): 17-33.
Wendell, Susan. “Who is Disabled? Defining Disability,” in The Rejected Body: Feminist Philosophical Reflections on Disability. New York: Routledge, 1996.
 Nevertheless, Higashida does express social constructionist ideas in a more casual way, noting that he sees his autism not as an inherent problem, but as a mismatch between his particular brain architecture and the world in which he lives. For an introduction to some of the key issues in disability studies, see: Susan Wendell, “Who is Disabled? Defining Disability,” in The Rejected Body: Feminist Philosophical Reflections on Disability (New York: Routledge, 1996); Douglas Baynton, “Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History,” in The New Disability History: American Perspectives, ed. Paul K. Longmore and Lauri Umansky (New York: NYU Press, 2001); Catherine Kudlick, “Disability History: Why We Need Another Other,” The American Historical Review 108 (June 2003): 763-93; Tobin Siebers, Disability Theory (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008); Roger Cooter, “The Disabled Body,” in Companion to Medicine in the Twentieth Century, ed. Roger Cooter and John Pickstone (London: Routledge, 2000).
 Wendell, “Unhealthy Disabled,” 31.