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Review: The Reason I Jump - One Boy's Voice from the Silence of Autism, By Naoki Higashida, trs by David Mitchell and Keiko Yoshida

A glimpse into a corner of a secret world

Naoki Higashida, the severely autistic 13-year-old author of The Reason I Jump, invites us into his world. I jumped at the chance, having always yearned to read my autistic sister's mind.

A series of refreshingly candid questions punctuates the memoir. Many focus on famously baffling aspects of autism ("Why don't you make eye contact?" and "Why do you ask the same questions over and over?"), whereas others are unpredictable ("What kind of TV programmes do you enjoy?"), and some voice things we'd fear to ask ("Why do people with autism speak so loudly and weirdly?").

Full of unanswered questions about their son, whose autism is as "challenging and life-defining" as the author's, the co-translators Keiko Yoshida and her husband, the Man Booker-shortlisted novelist David Mitchell, found The Reason I Jump "a revelatory godsend". For the first time, they felt as if their son was "talking to us about what was happening inside his head".

Although the author finds conversation almost impossible, he writes by pointing to letters on a grid. This painstaking method brings to mind Christopher Nolan's Whitbread Award-winning memoir, Under the Eye of the Clock, which he typed with a pointer strapped to his head. Just as Nolan revealed a rich mind trapped by cerebral palsy, Higashida illuminates an exuberant mind imprisoned by autism.

Despite the Herculean effort of translating the autistic experience into language, The Reason I Jump reads effortlessly, each page challenging preconceptions that autistic people lack empathy, humour or imagination. Higashida's insights confirm some of my suspicions (perhaps the phrases that my sister repeats feel pleasurable, "like a game of catch with a ball"), whilst challenging others (perhaps she enjoys Teletubbies not because she is childlike, but because it feels like running into a friendly face in a world that's overwhelmingly strange), and raising new possibilities (perhaps she visualises my voice when she fails to meet my eye).

My sister may never have Higashida's access to language, and he can never speak for her. But through him I have glimpsed a tiny corner of their world, and for that – however vicarious, however bitter-sweet – I jump for joy.


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