Required Reading. Eloquent, visceral and transcendental. Naoki Higashida’s examination of his autistic world, its hopes and hazards; its joys and tears; its insights and confusions; Naoki sheds a profound and revelatory light on the autistic mind.
Required reading for autism workers and those interested in the area. Everyone really. These two books The Reason I Jump (which I blog about here) and Fall Down 7 Times Get Up 8 by Naoki Higashida trans David Mitchell & Keiko Yoshida.
You can currently hear David Mitchel on Fall Down 7 Times Get Up 8 on BBC Radio 4 playback(subject to geographic licence) until mid-August. Mitchell and Higashida need no blurb from me, but it would go:
Eloquent, visceral and transcendental. Naoki Higashida’s examination of his autistic world, its hopes and hazards; its joys and tears; its insights and confusions; Naoki sheds a profound and revelatory light on the autistic mind. Required Reading.
From the introduction by Mitchell:
“…The Reason I Jump has been translated into more than thirty languages. To the best of my knowledge, this makes Naoki Higashida the most widely translated living Japanese author after Haruki Murakami... My involvement in the promotion of The Reason I Jump, however, gave me a crash course in the politics of special needs. It is not for the faint-hearted. Entrenched opinion is well armed, and its default reaction to new ideas is often hostile. While The Reason I Jump enjoyed a positive reception, an accusation was levelled that nobody with ‘genuine’ severe autism could possibly have authored such articulate prose: never mind the YouTube clips showing Naoki authoring this same articulate prose. Therefore, Naoki must have been misdiagnosed and doesn’t have autism at all; or he’s an impostor at the Asperger’s Syndrome end of the spectrum, akin to the character Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory; or his books are written by someone else, possibly his mother. Or me. The New York Times reviewer cautioned the translators against ‘turning what we find into what we want’. (The subtext I can’t help but see here is, ‘These desperate parents won’t face the fact their son is a vegetable so their objectivity is compromised.’) Elsewhere, Naoki has been accused of seeking entry into the guru business. You really cannot win. Of course, Naoki hopes that his writing contributes to a better public understanding of autism, but he is all too aware of the limits imposed by autism upon his knowledge of the neurotypical world. Reading newspapers isn’t easy for him and politics can seem baffling. As an ex-pupil of a special needs school he knows that autism comes in many shapes and sizes, so his observations on autism won’t be, and can’t be, universally applicable. Naoki is nobody’s guru: he’ll answer questions as best he can, but you take what you need and leave the rest….“
If Ta-Nehisi Coates can write about the African-American experience and through one voice make “the hazards and hopes of black male life” “visceral, eloquent and beautifully redemptive” and thus “required reading” (quote from Toni Morrison) then I think Naoki can for autism. As aside, I do think Coates is also required reading. Through both of those lenses (and with a dose of Andrew Solomon’s Far from the Tree) you can gather that perhaps an autist, a black American, a gay person, even a “genius” have most in common than you might think. [More on this another day I hope]
Andrew Solomon quotes Nobel laureate Eric Kandel: “If we can understand autism, we can understand the brain.” Solomon adds: “That is a generous way of saying we will understand autism only when we understand the brain.”
My most instructive experience of all was being told point-blank by a fellow contributor to a radio programme that The Reason I Jump couldn’t be genuine because Naoki employs metaphor, and people with severe autism can’t understand what a metaphor is, let alone create one. In fact, I’ve watched Naoki spell out similes and metaphors on his alphabet grid on a number of occasions, but that day I found myself in one of those no-win situations where protestations of probity only persuade your accusers that there’s no smoke without fire.”
Spike seems likely more verbal than Naoki or Mitchell’s son, but certainly on the magenta-yellow-splodge scale of speaking. And Spike has written this:
“…Ultimately, I believe that while severe non-verbal autism does indeed look like a severe cognitive impairment, the truth is it’s not: it’s a severe sensory-processing and communicative impairment. These words hold a world of difference. To deny that a severely autistic brain may house a mind as curious and imaginative as anyone else’s is to perpetuate a ruinous falsehood. (The historical analogy is deafness, which from Aristotle’s era until the advent of sign language in the nineteenth century was also thought to be indicative of a severe cognitive impairment –hence the synonym for stupid, ‘dumb’.)…”
“…A person’s autism doesn’t conveniently peter out at a certain age, nor does it stop evolving. Our son is now eleven and we’ve already found this volume to be a useful source of insight into how adolescence can impact upon autism, as well as an indication of what to expect further ahead. Most of its short chapters were written by Naoki for his blog between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two, though he often analyses his younger self from his more mature perspective. So we hope this new book will be of practical help for other ‘autism-insiders’ with both young and older teenagers on their hands….”
“For general readers, we hope the book will offer another opportunity to slip into an autistically wired brain……. The title Fall Down Seven Times, Get Up Eight is borrowed from a Japanese proverb about the merits of persistence, and the book offers experience, advice and hope. Its pages map the limits placed by non-verbal autism upon its author’s life, but also describe how Naoki has been able to transcend, renegotiate or just learn to live with those same limits. The book shows how a disability can be turned into a field of endeavour and the pursuit of a purposeful life. If this is possible for Naoki, it may be possible for others, too. Autism has a habit of making clean labels like ‘verbal’ and ‘non-verbal’ murky. With neuro-atypical people, communicative ability exists on a spectrum and not in a binary yes/ no position. Whenever I’m asked ‘Is your son verbal or not?’, in order to reply fully I have to explain that while his comprehension appears to be good and he can name many hundreds of objects in English and Japanese, his spoken communication is limited to a few phrases, and he’s never had a conversation longer than three or four exchanges of these phrases. I cannot know for sure whether he understands none, some or all of a conversation between third parties. If I could be sure, it wouldn’t be autism we were dealing with (and if I had £ 10 for every time I’ve said that last phrase, I could buy a mid-range family car). Autism is a relative thing as well as label-resistant. Compared to some of his peers who have never uttered a word in their lives, and indeed compared to Naoki, my son is rather verbal: but relative to his neurotypical contemporaries, he’s a step away from muteness. … One’s position on the verbal-non-verbal spectrum can fluctuate according to mood and stress, and shift in the long term. Naoki has only ever answered one of my questions aloud, without using his alphabet grid. We were at lunch. His answer was a simple ‘Yes’ and the whole table smiled in surprise at this achievement, Naoki included. (I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve forgotten the question.)… My own son is free from many of the classical autistic ‘tics’ that Naoki is burdened with, and over short periods he can even pass as neurotypical. In contrast, ten seconds in Naoki’s company is enough for his autism to become unmistakable. My son, however, shows no sign –yet –of being able to communicate the richness of his inner life in the way that Naoki can. Whose autism is more severe? An accurate answer isn’t straightforward. I accept that we need words for degrees of disability, but I’ve developed allergies to the current terminology of ‘severe’ versus ‘mild’ (redolent of colds and curries) or ‘high-functioning’ versus ‘low-functioning’ (Commander Data from Star Trek versus a 1980s home computer). Not long ago I met up with an old acquaintance whom I hadn’t seen since my son was diagnosed, who said –with the air of one who doesn’t waste time beating about the bush –‘So, I understand your son’s severely autistic?’ Apart from feeling a bit stung, I felt stumped by the paucity of the question. The severity of my son’s autism varies wildly from aspect to aspect –communicative, behavioural, self-management, sensory processing, gross and fine motor control. Other variables are mood, tiredness and even the time of year (watch out for November, after the clocks have been turned back an hour). Shorter answers to the question ‘How autistic is he or she?’ are blunt and reductive, yet their ramifications –in education, in the provision of disability-allowance –can be life altering. As I explained all this to my acquaintance, I wished that autistic severity and mildness could be calibrated in terms of ink-cartridge colours, with yellow at the Asperger’s end, magenta at the harder-core pole and cyan in the middle, as in: ‘Well, his autism’s functionally fairly cyan, but if people are telling him No! all the time it can get splotchy with magenta. Mind you, when he’s writing words on his Magna-Doodle or kicking ass at Temple Run on his iPad his autism glows canary yellow.’ That works for me: if it works for you, pass it on.”
“To conclude: the translators hope that Fall Down Seven Times, Get Up Eight will find a place in the growing corpus of ‘autism-witness’ texts that inform the public, help to dispel myths and misconceptions past their expiry dates, promote the cause of neurodiversity, and encourage people to think twice before using the word ‘autistic’ when they mean ‘anal’ or ‘up-tight’. Autism is a fact of our world, which shapes the lives of millions. We cannot change this fact, but we can change our attitudes.” David Mitchell Ireland, 2017.
I’ve included almost all his introduction (I hope Mitchell won’t mind) as it seems important to me, and hard to edit out the thread of his argument.
There’s more from the BBC on it being book of the week here. There’s recent (July 2017) article from David Mitchell in the Guardian talkingabout autism and his wish list.
And I have written previously about Naoki’s first published book here.