Director: Jerry Rothwell (USA, UK). Year of Release: 2021
The Reason I Jump is loosely based on the book of the same name by 13-year old Japanese boy Higashida Naoki. The authorship has been contested, partly by people who don’t believe that a teenager can write so eloquently, but also because Naoki has severe autism and is unable to communicate verbally. This is used to “prove” either that he is not the real author or that he doesn’t really have autism.
Director Jerry Rothwell has taken on the almost impossible task of telling a story which has been already mediated many times – from Naoki’s thoughts onto paper, from Japanese into English, and from the English book onto screen – so that we can attempt to understand the life and emotions of autistic kids with whom we are unable to feel empathy. We literally cannot understand how they think and feel.
To help us on our way, we have the English translator David Mitchell (not that one, but, yes, that one), himself the father of an autistic child. Mitchell describes Naoki’s book as poetry. It is neither possible nor desirable to understand what the literal meaning of the words on the page mean to Naoki. But the writing is so clear that we are able at least to start to understand the thoughts and feelings of people who are unable to articulate themselves using “traditional” methods.
Apparently Naoki did not want to take part in the film, saying that he’s already written what he wants to say. This ends up being more of a help than a hindrance. We do see some slightly distracting shots of a Japanese-ish looking boy striking poses while a voiceover reads passages from Naoki’s book. But most of the time, we follow the lives of a number of autistic kids from across the world – and the parents who are trying to help them and to understand them.
This is not always a simple task. Amrit’s mother in India recalls feeling that she’s just a bad mother for not being able to communicate with her daughter. Despite having difficulties with verbal communication, Amrit is a talented artist, and successful exhibitions have been organised of her work. The film sensibly does not comment on whether Amrir’s work is the result of her condition or a sign that, like all other sectors of society, autistic people can be more or less creative.
Nonetheless this is not a film which wants to claim that autistic people are just like anyone else. Some symptoms are described which don’t affect all autistic people but lend themselves to some generalization. An inability to grasp the passage of time, for example, which leads you unable to distinguish between what happened just now and a long time ago. Or a heightened response to light, colour and water. In one scene Joss in the UK goes through a colour park experiencing a joy that his father says he could never feel.
Most importantly, autistic people are deprived of the ability to communicate the ideas which are clearly forming in their head. Ben and Emma in the US now use an elaborate system of articulating words by pointing to letters on a chart. It is a long an arduous process, but it allows them to take part in some sort of formal education, which has been denied to autistic people in previous generation. In the case of Ben and Emma, they articulately respond to a lesson about Peronist rule in Argentina.
It is mentioned in passing that maybe the reason that autistic people are prone to scenes in public spaces is the sheer frustration of not being able to communicate the ideas in their head. Rather than viewing them as educationally deficient, perhaps society should try to understand a little more that different minds work in different ways. As Mitchell says in the film, ““Neurotypicals are rubbish at understanding anything that is not neurotypical.”
Our final port of call is Sierra Leone, where Jestina experiences difficulties in a society which is still open to ideas that people afflicted by autism are possessed by the devil and should be just left out to die. This is no place for Western complacency though. We hear eugenicist speeches from the very recent past calling for the social exclusion and murder of “sub-humans”, including a very chilling one in German (we can guess how long ago that one was).
One criticism that can be levelled legitimately is that all the people we see are respectable middle class. Now, there is a clear difference between living conditions of middle class people in Sierra Leone, India and the West, but all have access to a garden, a family with a relatively large amount of free time and (quite probably private) educators to mitigate the worst problems. You can only wonder how parents of autistic kids cope if they’re struggling to pay for their own existence.
But this is a minor criticism. The Reason I Jump tells us more about a subject that should be common knowledge to all of us, but is stigmatized into the background. Watching it leaves us with wonder at the patience and care spent by parents of autistic kids, but even more at the unnoticed talents of the kids themselves. It is very easy to walk by on the other side of the road, but it would be much less rewarding to distance yourself from some quite incredible talents.