By Nils Skudra
This week I had the opportunity to watch Jerry Rothwell’s documentary The Reason I Jump, a profoundly compelling commentary on the lives of several young nonspeaking adults on the autism spectrum.
Based on the book of the same title by Naoki Higashida, this documentary explores the unique experiences and challenges of nonspeaking autistic individuals from an insider’s perspective since the author himself grew up as an autistic child without speech. Given that there is a widespread perception that nonspeaking autistic people are placed at a significant disadvantage in contrast to their speaking counterparts, this documentary definitely merited a film review since it makes an effort to debunk this commonly held belief through chronicling the struggles and successes of the respective individuals who are featured.
The documentary opens with footage of a young Japanese boy (representing Higashida as a child) wandering alone through fields and a deserted industrial area, making keen observations of his surroundings. The viewer is subsequently introduced to excerpts from Higashida’s book, reflecting on his childhood experience:
I didn’t even know that I was a kid with special needs. Even now, I can’t do a real conversation.
Higashida elaborates that the realm of autism may seem like “a very mysterious place” from an outsider’s perspective, which motivated him to write the book. We are subsequently introduced to two other young nonspeaking adults on the spectrum: Joss, an English adolescent who is first seen making incomprehensible statements, and Emma, who walks around with a Google Chrome disc. Higashida then breaks the fourth wall by telling the viewers: “Spare a little time for what I have to stay and take a little trip through our world.”
As the documentary progresses, it delves into the perspectives of the families of the respective young nonspeaking adults with autism and the emotional challenges that they have had in trying to help their children. For example, we are introduced to Amrit, an Indian girl whose mother reflects that her daughter “had so much anger in her but there was no way she could tell us about it.”
She recalls that when Amrit would scream and cry, she did not know what to do, which was very painful for her. In spite of this, Amrit displays a remarkable talent as an artist, producing beautiful paintings which she seeks to have displayed in an art gallery. It is clear that for Amrit, artwork is a channel through which she can express her emotions that cannot be vocalized through speech.
Higashida subsequently shares another reflection about his perception of the world as a person with autism: “How do I see our world? How I perceive it appears to be different.”
He elaborates that for him, the details jump straight out first of all, and gradually the whole image comes into focus, and he must scan his memory in order to get a grip on things. This is a very relatable observation for individuals on all ranges of the autism spectrum since their neurological functioning is very detail-oriented, and consequently they tend to share this information in an unfiltered manner, which can sometimes be a source of annoyance or discomfort for neurotypical individuals. This is exemplified by the character of Shaun Murphy in The Good Doctor since he often relates the full details of his patients’ medical condition to their family members instead of reassuring them or respecting their wishes, and consequently his supervising surgeons and peers have to keep Shaun’s tendencies in check.
David Mitchell, the co-translator for the documentary, shares his insights about Higashida’s book, stating that the author “makes a map of his mind.” This is a compelling insight since many autistic individuals think visually, laying their thoughts out in the form of maps or diagrams in their mind in order to put different pieces of information together.
In The Good Doctor, Shaun follows these steps when thinking about a possible surgical operation that would best work for the given situation, and he often comes up with the right solution. However, Higashida points out that there is a downside to the ways in which people with autism think since the world they inhabit is chaotic and swirling, and this frequently can bring about meltdowns, which, he states, can blow up out of nowhere. This is illustrated by Joss who is shown crying and moaning in agitation and covering his ears with his hands as his parents try to comfort him.
Another intriguing aspect of the documentary is that it portrays how nonspeaking autistic individuals absorb the sounds around them and how they perceive those sounds. This is reflected in the story of Amrit since she exhibits a very keen attention to the sensory input that she is exposed to, showing a unique appreciation for the everyday sounds that neurotypical individuals take for granted.
Higashida pointedly remarks on this tendency: “Every single thing has its unique beauty. I can’t concentrate on anything else. There are certain sounds and sights that are either very painful or very pleasant.” The effect that these sounds have on autistic individuals can vary based on the situation and the kind of sound that they absorb. I can relate to this on a personal level since I have a strong sensitivity to sudden loud noises, such as pots and pans unexpectedly falling down, and put my hands over my ears with alarm when I hear them.
One truly profound observation that Higashida shares revolves around the effect that being nonspeaking has on people with autism:
Not being able to talk means not being able to share what you’re thinking or feeling.
Since nonspeaking individuals cannot vocalize their thoughts and feelings through speech, they face the major challenge of expressing the sensory input they have processed. Amrit expresses herself this through her artwork while Emma and her friend Ben learn to use a spelling board for forming complete sentences.
Although many of Joss’ statements are incomprehensible, he is able to form some discernible words such as “like music” and “I need to get more bubbles at the shop.” “Joss can see everything and can hear everything,” his mother Stevie observes, and he has an eidetic memory since he recalls Number 18, their former address: “To Joss, what happened in our old house is just as real as something that happened half an hour ago.”
Joss’ phenomenal memory is a common trait among people with autism, and in many ways, it can be an important advantage in an academic or professional context. I have often been told that I have a photographic memory since I can instantaneously recall facts about notable historical figures or events, and this has been very beneficial for my academic performance.
Higashida elaborates that for autistic individuals, “time is something that has no clear boundaries,” with “cycles of scattered memories sometimes replay[ing] themselves in my head as if they had just happened.” In certain ways, this can be a mixed blessing since an autistic person’s bad memories might periodically replay themselves. While most neurotypical individuals might be able to arrange and filter their memories in a continuous and chronological manner, this replaying of certain memories can be a source of deep discomfort and anxiety for a person with autism, and therefore it may not be so easy to put these bad memories behind them.
A major impact of Higashida’s book is that it challenged ideas about people with autism having no emotions or imaginative feelings, and the documentary conveys this aspect beautifully through its use of excerpts and coverage of the different protagonists. In explaining the reason that he jumps, Higashida writes,
I react physically to feelings of sadness and happiness. When I jump, it feels as if my feelings are going upwards to the sky.
Furthermore, as Ben and Emma learn to form words, they display the ability to express their feelings and reflections, with Emma stating that their friendship “requires only some peace from the world.” This sentiment is very illustrative of the type of comfort zone that many autistic individuals consider ideal since there is more peace and quiet with less sensory input, which may be especially appealing for nonspeaking people given that they wouldn’t have the pressure of trying to vocalize their thoughts in interactions with other people.
Another pivotal aspect of this documentary makes is its depiction of the ostracism that nonspeaking autistic people face in comparison with their speaking counterparts. The stigma placed on nonspeaking autism is painfully conveyed in the film’s chronicling of Jestina, a girl in Sierra Leone whose parents share their experiences of raising her. Jestina’s mother reflects that when her daughter would go into temper tantrums, neighbors would say “The devil has possessed her.” In addressing the community about her daughter’s condition, she encourages other parents to share their stories about the challenges facing their nonspeaking children: One mother tearfully states that neighbors told her to drown her daughter in the river.
Although these shocking sentiments would seem primitive to contemporary Western audiences, the documentary demonstrates that they were once prevalent throughout the Western world since autistic children were considered psychotic, and eugenics, implemented through sterilization or (in its ultimate manifestation under the Nazis) euthanasia, was widely regarded as a humane solution for children with “degenerate” characteristics.
In spite of the severe challenges that nonspeaking autistic people face, The Reason I Jump makes it poignantly clear that they can successfully integrate into mainstream society as fully fledged adults through support from family and community.
Through this breakthrough, it makes a profound argument for changing the conversation around autism, which, Ben remarks, can be achieved by nonspeaking autistics “being part of the conversation.” Part of changing this conversation necessarily includes a change in our perceptions of speaking vs. nonspeaking autistic people. While speaking individuals are considered on “the high-functioning range” and are considered more successful, nonspeaking autistic individuals are commonly viewed as being handicapped and unable to achieve social integration.
By watching this documentary, viewers will hopefully develop an appreciation for the talents and abilities of nonspeaking children with autism and become more supportive of their personal and professional growth.
I am an artist on the autism spectrum. I received an MA specializing in Civil War/Reconstruction history at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, and I have been drawing hundreds of Civil War-themed pictures since the age of five and a half. I’m now working on a secondary Master’s in Library Science. As a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, I have a very focused set of interests, and the Civil War is my favorite historical event within that range of interests. It is therefore my fervent desire to become a Civil War historian and have my Civil War artwork published in an art book for children. I am also very involved in the autism community and currently serve as the President/Head Officer of Spectrum at UNCG, an organization I founded for students on the autism spectrum. The goal of the organization is to promote autism awareness and foster an inclusive community for autistic students on the UNCG campus. The group has attracted some local publicity and is steadily gaining new members, and we shall be hosting autism panels for classes on campus in the near future.