The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year Old Boy with Autism (Starred Review)

The Reason I Jumpby Naoki Higashida

translated from the Japanese by David Mitchell and K A Yoshida

This slim, poignant, immediately readable journey into the mind of a thirteen-year-old autistic boy is arranged as a series of answers to 39 questions–such as “Why do you line up your toy cars and blocks?” and “Why do you like being in the water?” The book takes its name from one of the more common behaviors of autistic children, a behavior that is often frowned upon.

The Reason I Jump was written by Higashida using an alphabet grid designed by his mother to help him communicate. Much of the book centers on the subject of communication; despite the terrible difficulties he experiences in attempting to communicate with others, Higashida writes, he wants desperately to be understood. Language is difficult for him; forming words is excruciating.

In answer to the question, “Why do you echo questions back at the asker?” Higashida writes”

Firing the question back is a way of sifting through our memories to pick up clues about what the questioner is asking. We understand the question okay, but we can’t answer it until we fish out the right ‘memory picture’ in our heads.

One comes away from this book with an understanding of Higashida’s deep sensitivity, as well as his isolation and desperation. He pleads with parents of autistic children to understand that the greatest pain the child experiences is the knowledge that their caregivers suffer.

I ask you, those of you who are with us all day, not to stress yourselves out because of us. When you do this, it feels as if you’re denying any value at all that our lives may have…The hardest ordeal for us is the idea that we are causing grief for other people. We can put up with our own hardships okay, but the thought that our lives are the source of other people’s unhappiness, that’s plain unbearable.

He asks that teachers and other children be patient with behavior that may seem odd or off-putting. Autistic children do not choose to behave differently, he says. They are hardwired to do so.

As for the question that inspired the title, “What’s the reason you jump?” Higashida offers a multifaceted explanation:

“When I’m jumping, I can feel my body parts really well,” he writes, “and that makes me feel so, so good.” Beyond that, when he experiences intense feelings of happiness or sadness, his body “seizes up as if struck by lightening.” Jumping, he says,  is a way to combat that stifffness, “shaking loose the ropes that are tying up my body.”

While Higashida asks for patience and understanding, he is far from self-pitying. While his autism can be painfully isolating, he also celebrates the extraordinary gifts of autism:

Every single thing has its own beauty. People with autism get to cherish this beauty, as if it’s a kind of blessing given to us. Wherever we go , whatever we do, we can never be completely lonely.

Higashida’s intense experience of the world and his precise, often lyrical observations are a reminder that autistic children have much to offer. This edition includes a forward by co-translator David Mitchell (The Cloud Atlas), who, as the parent of an autistic son, found Higashida’s unique story to be a welcome counterpoint to the growing library of books about autism, most of which are written by parents and psychologists.

Poignant, honest, and highly informative, The Reason I Jump should be required reading not only for parents of children on the autistic spectrum, but also for teachers. Parents could also read this book with non-autistic children in order to foster understanding and compassion for their autistic classmates and peers.

Pub date: August 27, 2013, Random House Publishing Group

ISBN-13: 9780812994865

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Michelle Richmond (reviewer) is the New York Times bestselling author of The Year of Fog, No One You Know, and Dream of the Blue Room. Her new novel, GOLDEN STATE, will be published by Random House Publishing Group in February, 2014.