Saskia Baron

Some insights into autism

<p class="p1">Naoki Higashida has found an ingenious way to express himself. But it won’t necessarily help others with autism</p>

The Reason I Jump, by the autistic Japanese teenager Naoki Higashida, was a surprise bestseller in 2013. Rendered as a series of answers to the questions that puzzled those around him, Higashida’s lyrical explanations of his compulsions and unusual behaviours were revelatory and uplifting. Readers felt they understood the condition better as a result. Higashida was described as non-verbal; he composed his earlier book by touching letters on a card with an alphabet grid or tracing them on the palm of a hand. The spelled-out words were transcribed and the text edited by his mother. This sequel, Fall Down Seven Times, Get Up Eight, has been edited together from Higashida’s subsequent blog posts and interviews he gave to the Big Issue in Japan.

Now an adult, he uses a computer and on occasion is able to read his writing out loud. But he still struggles with spontaneous conversation and describes his frustration when the wrong words come out, or he repeats scripted phrases like a tic. Higashida battles with his limited speech and takes pride in his often poetic writing; he reminds one of the heroic efforts that Christy Brown and Helen Keller went through in order to communicate.

Unlike Brown and Keller, there’s an additional layer between Higashida’s voice and the reader in that his writing has been translated into English by the novelist David Mitchell and his wife, K.A. Yoshida. Over the years they found the young Japanese writer’s insights into autism hugely helpful in understanding their own autistic son. In the introduction Mitchell describes his irritation with sceptics who have questioned Higashida’s diagnosis or his authorship. Some reviewers of the first book were baffled that he doesn’t conform to old generalisations that autistic people are too literal to use metaphors and are emotionally insensitive.

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