Author hails Japanese writer for window into autism
David Mitchell remembers the day he read the memoir of a 13-year-old boy with autism — hailing it a “revelatory godsend” that offered a window on the life of his own autistic son.
The best-selling author of Cloud Atlas says Naoki Higashida was “one of the most helpful and practical writers on the subject of autism in the world”.
“Pre-Naoki, I’m ashamed to say that I used to regard and treat my son as a kind of defective robot,” Mitchell says.
“Post-Naoki, I started to believe that it’s notmy son that’s defective, but only his ability to communicate what’s happening in his rich, playful, ‘trapped’ mind.”
Higashida was just 5 years old when he was diagnosed with severe autism. Autism is a spectrum of neuro-developmental disorders that manifests itself in difficulties communicating.
The exact causes are unknown, and research suggests it may be genetic, environmental, or both. There have also been unproven scares linking the condition to childhood vaccinations.
Like Dustin Hoffman’s autistic character in the Oscar-winning film RainMan, Higashida, now 22 years old, gets stuck repeating certain movements, twitches erratically and sometimes recites numbers.
He has trouble expressing himself and gets flustered when there are too many people around him, but can communicate well — though sometimes clumsily — by spelling out his thoughts on a keyboard-like alphabet grid.
“I can’t explain my feelings well because I have autism, but I can communicate by doing this,” Higashida says during an interview at his office in Kisarazu, southeast of Tokyo.
“Words are not just a means of communication, butmy friends.”
That friendship with words blossomed into an essay, entitled The Reason I Jump, which was published as a book in 2007 featuring 58 often-asked questions about his autism and his frank — sometimes startling — answers to them.
“I very quickly forget what it is I’ve just heard,” he writes in response to a query about why autistic people repeat questions.
“A normal person’s memory is arranged continuously, like a line. My memory, however, is more like a pool of dots. I’m always ‘picking up’ these dots — by asking my questions.”
Addressing the book’s title, he writes: “When I’m jumping, it’s as ifmy feelings are going upward to the sky. By jumping up and down, it’s as if I’mshaking loose the ropes that are tying upmy body.”
The book was a hit in Japan, but its discovery and subsequent translation byMitchell— who previously lived in Japan and has a Japanese wife — brought it mainstream audiences all around the world.
“We read a chapter and thought, ‘MyGod, that’s like our son talking