A vital yet troubling story
To watch The Reason I Jump is to be cast into a morass where emotions conflict with logic. Drawn from the book of the same name by the non-speaking autistic author Naoki Higashida and written when he was 13, the film is part-documentary, part-sensory-immersion and in part didactic. It is an important, moving, but also slightly troubling film.
Directed by Jerry Rothwell, this beautifully shot and carefully constructed work invites us into the lives of five autistic young people: Amrit (Noida, India); Joss (Broadstairs, UK); lifelong friends Ben and Emma (Arlington, USA) and Jestina (Freetown, Sierra Leone). We learn, through footage of their interests, daily activities and the impact of anxieties and sensory needs, as well as interviews and narration from their parents, of their unique personalities, struggles and achievements. These sections are sympathetically and warmly drawn, as we learn, for example, of Joss’s acute and particular responses to the sounds of high voltage electricity storage units – 'green boxes' – which he finds compelling, as they sound 'like music'. Other striking examples include Amrit’s wonderful artwork, which she developed as a means to communicate about her daily experiences, both their pleasures and their pains.
Interspersed with this documentary-style footage are sections with an imagined young Higashida, played delightfully by Jim Fujiwara, who is autistic himself, as he runs through, and interacts with different places and landscapes. Here, the narrative switches to the book itself, read sensitively by Jordan O’Donegan. These parts are both an auditory and visual feast, revealing the emotional power of the book. But I found these sections strangely troubling too, as the narrative suggests, not entirely convincingly, that Higashida is both deeply aware of his own consciousness and that of non-autistic others.
This leads us to what feels like a not-so-subtle agenda of the film, which concerns how we support and understand the communication of non-speaking autistic people. This is particularly evident in the sequences filmed in the US, where we see Ben and Emma, who communicate predominantly with letter boards held by an adult, reflecting the way the book was written by Higashida. This is essentially facilitated communication, an area of huge controversy because of continued doubts over validity. This lack of subtlety spoils what is otherwise a laudable and much-needed area of focus in this film. Indeed, Emma’s impatience with the letter-board communication is evident in parts, whereas the depiction of her unspoken friendship with Ben, who tolerates affectionately her need to play various electronic devices very loudly, is beautiful and profound.
There are also short excerpts with David Mitchell who, with his wife Keiko Yoshida, translated the book. His presence in the film – in fact, the very last shot of anyone is of Mitchell himself – reminded me of his predominance in the publicity of the book when it was first published. For me, as well as Jim Fujiwara, the stars of this film are Amrit, Joss, Ben, Emma and Jestina, and to end with a shot of Mitchell was something of a misstep. Higashida does not feature directly in this film at all.
Nevertheless, this is a powerful and necessary film which enables some insight into the sensory and communicative lifeworld of a group of autistic young people. Some will object to the presence of parents in the film, but it would take a stony heart not to recognise how deeply they love their children, and how hard they work to enable them to live good lives. We are reminded of this particularly with Jestina’s parents, who have had to fight deep prejudice and stigma in Sierra Leone. In a country where they state that autistic children can simply be abandoned in the bush, Jestina’s mother makes the stark assertion that 'kids like ours, if they’re alive, they’re the lucky ones'. While we might not think we share similar prejudices in the global north, the appalling mortality rates of autistic people with learning difficulties tell a different story. The Reason I Jump might challenge our rationality in parts, but it has a vital story to tell.
Information about Amrit Khurana’s art work can be found here.
Information about the Browne-Penn School, the first school in Sierra Leone for autistic children, and set up by Jestina’s parents, can be found here.
- Dr Rebecca Wood is a senior lecturer in Special Education at the University of East London. Her research focuses on autism, communication and education. Rebecca is the parent of an autistic teenager [pictured above] who communicates with words, gesture and sign language.
Find much more on autism in our archive.
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