Friday, December 20, 2013

Best of 2013: The Reason I Jump

One of the many items enjoyed by Burbank Public Library staff during 2013, recommended for your consideration:

The Reason I Jump, by Naoki Higashida

This small book, written by a 13-year-old autistic Japanese boy, recently became an unexpected bestseller. It is one of my favorite books of the year because it not only widens your understanding of a psychological condition that seems so strange (and estranging) to most of us, but it can’t help but immeasurably deepen your empathy.

It is likely to have a sustained readership for years to come, as it’s a bit of a rarity: a memoir in which a boy with autism has found a way to communicate directly with the outside world about the way in which he experiences life. Through the use of an alphabet grid, Naoki painstakingly learned to construct words and sentences so that he could express in writing the inner life that he was unable to communicate in speech. He is able to give us an understanding about the challenges a person with autism faces, the daily struggle, and the often profound sense of alienation and isolation they feel. We get an explanation for the unsettling and perplexing behavioral symptoms of autism, and most importantly, we come to understand that a person with autism shares with us the same fundamental aspirations and needs of life. 

In The Reason I Jump, Naoki poses a series of questions he is frequently asked about his thinking and behavior, and attempts to answer them--questions such as “Why do you make a huge fuss over tiny mistakes?” and “Is it true that you hate being touched?” and “Why don’t you make eye contact when you are talking?” and “Why do you ask the same questions over and over?” Interspersed between these, Naoki has written enigmatic short stories (they have the feel of a Zen koan) in which he attempts to use his exceptional story-telling powers to give us some sense of the way he looks at things and what he feels.

The Reason I Jump will disabuse readers of the notion that those with autism are emotionally damaged and unfeeling. As Naoki writes, “One of the biggest misunderstandings you have about us is your belief that our feelings aren’t as subtle and complex as yours.” Perhaps we find such a belief comforting, because it seems to make less of a call on our sympathy and sensitivity, just like the idea that those with autism in some ways are compensated for their communicative deficiencies and social isolation by having narrowly focused but extraordinary mental abilities. You can’t leave The Reason I Jump without knowing that autism is an extraordinary affliction, and that those who try to lead lives with it are in so many ways heroic and worthy of our help and patience. The most moving and profound answer that Naoki gives in this book is his answer to the question, “Would you like to be normal?”

                                 I’ve learned that every human being, with or without
                                 disabilities, needs to strive to do their best, and by
                                 striving for happiness you will arrive at happiness. For us,
                                 you see, having autism is normal---so we can’t know for sure
                                 what your “normal” is even like. But so long as we can learn
                                 to love ourselves, I’m not sure how much it matters whether
                                 we are normal or autistic.

This is the starting place to which all outsiders must come before they can begin to build a life and deal with the challenges that face them. It is an insight that comes, unfortunately, not from some exceptional gift of intelligence but rather from a depth of suffering whose nature we can only begin to comprehend.

Hubert K., Reference Librarian

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