Naoki Higashida. Autistic Voice.

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.

"“Why can’t I speak? How come I’m the only one who can’t do it? How I used to agonise over these questions as I watched the other kids doing all kinds of things effortlessly that I’d never be able to manage, not even if I spent my entire life trying.

Every time, I just wanted to break down and cry. I stuck with my regular primary school until fifth grade –age eleven –but it had become so physically and mentally exhausting by that point that I transferred to a school for children with special needs.

My feelings about the move were ambivalent, and remain so. In one sense, it felt like I was running away and, once there, it took me a whole four years before I found a path to my authentic self. On the other hand, until then I had never observed a class in a special needs context and I was surprised by the big differences between classes there and the education I had been used to. While I was conflicted about the ‘special needs’ label, the kindness I encountered from both teachers and students –unthinkable at my previous school –took the edge off my unhappiness. There, I was no longer a ‘problem case’ but just a regular student. Some students were more capable than me while others had more severe challenges, and for the first time I realised how many neuro-atypical children existed in the world.

The school for children with special needs afforded me the freedom to be what I was, but it became less a place to receive an education and more a place to think about my autism. Time passed without my really doing a great deal. The classes were, in theory, tailored to each student’s disability profile, but in practice the teachers had enough on their hands just handling the students’ routine requirements. Some students were ‘long termers’ who had been there since first grade, while others, like me, had transferred in from regular schools because it was thought they were better suited to a school designed for special needs.

Looking back, most of my classmates seemed to enjoy their days at school without any complaints, but I still wonder if they all believed that this was the place they truly belonged? That said, my new school was a place where neuroatypical students were at least free from bullying or ignorant tellings-off. The school taught me the importance of being able to accept assistance and of being respected and valued by others.

I learned that we all have a right to live as a human being should live, and that happiness is attainable whether we have a disability or not. I saw a future path leading first to a high school for students with special needs (to which my new school was attached) and then to a work-centre for people with disabilities. I resolved to increase the range of things I could do without assistance, to work at becoming as independent as possible and, to the best of my ability, to avoid inconveniencing others. I thought that any aspirations outside this future were unrealistic because I was now where I belonged. I consigned any memories of my previous primary school to ancient history.”

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.

Jonathan Meth. A conversation, one.

Elegant, flowing, beautiful hands. Chatting with Jonathan Meth, I was struck by how eloquent his hands were.


Social decorum crimped me and I felt I couldn’t interject to say - wow your hands wonderfully mesmerize me. Social media strips decorum, so I can say that now.


My writing threads go back to when Jonathan ran writernet which harks back almost 20 years ago now. Now, I’m stepping back into a writing practice or perhaps a playwright as a multi-disciplinary arts-investing person, a some time mingler - which I’m told is a form of covening. It’s amazing to re-connect and hear how artists’ work have developed.


Jonathan has kept an international network of artists through Fence, which seems to me an evolution from the dramaturgical work of writernet (I will split the post and write about Fence in another section). He has also developed a practice in disability arts - and our shared interest in autism crosses over here. There’s a lot to Jonathan’s practice.


Across time and space, we end up on a warm New York autumn evening drinking a bar tender’s choice of drink, 10 over years since we last met.


The disability practice is described in this 2015 Guardian article and on his own site here. What I took away is that there is a strong disability arts practice in various countries, often forging on with limited support, but creating a long history or astonishing art. Three of them are partnered in Crossing the Line (not to be confused with the project that Gideon Lester and others are involved with): Crossing The Line (EU) is a project of the co-operative partnership of 3 European theatre companies: all leaders in the field of working with learning disabled artists. The partners are Moomsteatern in Malmo, Sweden; Compagnie de L’Oiseau Mouche in Roubaix, France and Mind The Gap in Bradford, UK. Jonathan is project dramaturg, and is hoping to expand the partnership to many more countries.

We also intersect on Ambitious about Autism. This is an ABA led group in the UK on ASD special education needs; but Ambitious acknowledges that the tent is larger than ABA and so pushes forward across a range of ASD advocacy; as child-centric and child-led practise informs much of good SEN (and typical) practice today, whatever techniques you find that work (and research is still relatively poor).


Drawing this part together, it was apparent to me that Jonathan speaks many languages. The language of art in its many dialects, the language of SEN, the language of policy makers and funders.


It dawned on me, I speak several of these languages too, and that we need more of us in today’s word. More than ever.


Jonathan spoke of Isaiah Berlin’s Fox (after Greek poet Archilochus) who ‘know many little things’.  As Jonathan writes: “They react to challenge by drawing on a pattern of general, pragmatic understanding, often making mistakes but seldom committing themselves to a potentially catastrophic grand strategy.” As opposed to the hedgehog, which knows one big thing.   It reminded me of this Nassim Taleb conversation with philosopher Constantine Sandis  -  Taleb argues a cousin piece of thinking:


“I do not consider myself a hedgehog, but a fox: I warn against focusing (‘anchoring’) on a single possible rare event. Rather, be prepared for the fact that the next large surprise, technological or historical, will not resemble what you have in mind (big surprises are what some people call ‘unknown unknowns’). In other words, learn to be abstract, and think in second order effects rather than being anecdotal – which I show to be against human nature. And crucially, rare events in Extremistan are more consequential by their very nature: the once-every-hundred-year flood is more damaging than the 10 year one, and less frequent.”


Being open minded, being open to possibilities when they happen, intertwining chance - taking those chances  - those challenges are absorbing them to make you stronger (anti-fragile, even more than resilient)


Looping back to Spike, that chimes with some of what I hope for him, that we can expose him to enough small and varied challenges and opportunities that he find enough to think, and be, and to find purpose. It’s hard for Spike to do that within an institution. We will find a way.


This last few days in New York has felt a little like that - throwing out the the threads - listening - thinking - being - meeting: from the chance meetings (triggered by the Empty Space), the semi-chance meetings like Jonathan; the near misses (Gideon, I’m still hoping); the re-connections;

Mixed in with the latest in pharmaceutical, medical technology and consumer genetic thinking.


And, I am thankful for that. Part two of conversation here.


Time for more?  Here’s a short post on 5 things autism has taught me.  Here is   JK Rowling on the benefits of failure.


Talking Trouble

An autist describes what he feels going through his head as he blurts out the wrong verbal phrase.


The other day, when it was time to say ‘Thank you very much’ to my helper for taking me out and bringing me safely home, the phrase that came out of my mouth was ‘Have a nice day!’ I’ve been working on these verbal set-pieces for ages and ages, but I still can’t master such simple exchanges. Talking is troublesome for me. I’d like to work through what was happening in my head when I made the mistake with my helper.


1) I wanted to say the correct thing to my helper. (In my head, ‘Thank you very much’ is stored in the ‘Everyday Phrases’ category.)

2) As soon as I tried to express my thanks, my mind went blank.

3) I floundered, having no idea what I needed to do next.

4) So I looked down, and saw the shoes my helper was wearing as he stood in the small entrance hall of our house …

5) … which reminded me of seeing my father’s shoes there earlier in the day in the very same place.

6) The scene of me saying ‘Have a nice day!’ to Dad flashed into my mind.

7) I remembered that I needed to say something to my helper …

8) … so I blurted out the phrase that was already in my head: ‘Have a nice day!’


Can you imagine a life where you’re confronted at every turn by this inability to communicate? I never know I’m saying the wrong thing until I hear myself saying it. Instantly I know I’ve slipped up, but the horse has already bolted and people are pointing out my error, or even laughing about it. Their pity, their resignation, or their sense of So he doesn’t even understand this! make me miserable. There’s nothing I can do but wallow in despondency. The best reaction to our mistakes will vary from person to person, and according to his or her age, but please remember: for people with autism, the pain of being unable to do what we’d like to is already hard to live with. Pain arising from other people’s reactions to our mistakes can break our hearts.


"A worthwhile existence lies in playing whatever cards life has dealt you as skilfully as you can."


From Naoki Higashida's book  Fall Down 7 Times Get Up 8 (trans David Mitchell & Keiko Yoshida)  giving you an insight in to the autistic mind.


A look at some  of the answers from his first book here including video. Some thoughts from David Mitchell and the second book to make into EnglishA few thoughts from mein the business leadership style.


If you'd like to feel inspired by commencement addresses and life lessons try: Ursula K Le Guin on literature as an operating manual for life;  Neil Gaiman on making wonderful, fabulous, brilliant mistakes; or Nassim Taleb's commencement address; or JK Rowling on the benefits of failure. Plus life tips from Matt Haig.



From Naoki Higashida's book  Fall Down 7 Times Get Up 8 (trans David Mitchell & Keiko Yoshida)  giving you an insight in to the autistic mind.

"Back in the days when I had no ways to communicate at all – no writing, pointing on my alphabet grid or verbal expression – I was extremely lonely. People who have never experienced this will go through life never knowing how soul crushing the condition of wordlessness is. If I tried to describe what it’s like to be non-verbal in the World of the Verbal in a single word, I’d choose this one: agony. And yet, this is also true: if we know there is even a single person who understands what it’s like for us, that’s solace enough to give us hope. For a long time I was tormented by the question, How come I’m the only one here who can’t talk? Why me? I often used to dream that I was able to speak. This chapter might make uncomfortable reading for those of you who live and work alongside people with non-verbal autism, but I’d like you to remember: there are lots of us, and this is what we go through. None of which is to say that people who can’t communicate should automatically be relegated to being sorry objects of pity. By living with extreme hardships day in and day out, by constantly challenging and asking questions of themselves, they search for meaning in their own lives and many of them might, eventually, access a mode of fulfilment beyond the reach of neurotypical people. A worthwhile existence lies in playing whatever cards life has dealt you as skilfully as you can."

A look at some of the answers from his first book here including video. Some thoughts from David Mitchell and more on the second book to make into English.  A few thoughts from me. 

Autism. One more lesson.

The cow was as black as the sky.

The cow was as white as paper.

The cow was as soft as sofas.

The cow was as fluffy as toys.

The cow moos as armadillos. 

Autists have a remarkable ability to put the unexpected together and create images, words and ideas that are fresh and new.


These ideas stimulate us to places we would not find otherwise.

...quiet as a dark sky

shy as a train leaving...

If I could pursue more of this I would, if I could be half as inventive.

5 lessons Autism has Taught Me

Some thoughts on what we can learn from autism, ASD, written in the self-help leadership style.

Everybody is somebody's weirdo

What unites humanity is vast and wonderful.

In the tapestry that is being human, you will always find someone who will seem odd to you. Likewise, you will always be peculiar to someone else. That is no reason for fear or hatred.

In finding out how oddball you are to some people, you can grow a wider appreciation of your own biases.

We all have them. We are all human.

Patience is genius

A quick decision particularly over questions of limited materiality (a Jeff Besos type 2 decision) is efficient. However, I have found I have won out in many situations by exhibiting patience. More patience than my competitors. I can out-wait most. Some psychologist have called this "grit". Economists talk about taking time horizon risk. I call it what you learn by losing going toe to toe with an autist.   

Patience is a winning strategy

"Because everyone else does it" - is never a great reason

Autists reveal what are social norms because they often flout them (I won't go in to theories of why, just the empirical observation that they do). This in turn reveals that much more of the world is built upon social norms than I had thought.

We do things because other do things. Lemmings. Herd mentality. All well documented. Yet it goes deeper to matters you would not question until an autist throws it, into stark relief.

Why do boys wear blue and girls pink? They did not 80 years a go. It's a social norm created by marketeers. Why do we shake hands ? (In fact, in many cultures, we do not). Why don't we speak truth to power ? Most autists I observe do not lie. If a person is fat, why not say they are fat ? Is it more harmful to turn from the truth (of course, white lies have their place in typical society, but what effect does that have?) Question if something is right, do not rely on the fact that everyone else does it.

Follow your interests - you may discover the extraordinary

Autists often obsess. People on the autistic spectrum also seem to create break throughs or invent non-standard thinking more regularly than typicals. Gladwell has written about the 10,000 hours plus it takes to reach a 'genius' level.

You are unlikely to have a novel breakthrough just ploughing the same furrow. Neither will you master anything unless you keep at, perhaps long after others have fallen by the way side (cf. Patience as a strategy).

Autists will sail steadfastly obsessively on beyond where I thought I could tread. That inspires me to more, even if I have no comprehension of what that obsession might be. Prime numbers, Disney cartoons, the cracks in the street, the music in the air, train couplers....

Sure, if you like, go fail conventionally.

That is not the way of the autist.

How people react to autism/difference reveals the character of their humanity

Post an interview, some CEOs and managers will ask how the candidate treated the support staff along the way to the interview. I've heard many repeat the adage of how someone treats a waiter or receptionist reveals a true character.

This is heightened when facing difference. While we can be trained to be polite to waiters and receptionists, there's a routine we can follow. Throw in unexpected difference, an autist, a different culture, a deaf person, a conflict...

Grace under pressure

We can all learn that, and be better people for it.