Diagnosed with autism in 1998 at the age of five, Naoki Higashida learned to write on an alphabet grid, painstakingly pointing out one letter at a time on a cardboard keyboard as an aide transcribed those characters into words. Higashida eventually transitioned to writing on a computer keyboard, and at the age of 13 wrote a memoir about living with autism that was released in his native Japan in 2007.
In the memoir, The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism, Higashida provides candid, emotionally honest answers to common questions about the disorder, demystifying what is, for many, confusing and sometimes unsettling behavior. The book is free of technical language, and stays away from discussions of neurology or brain development. Instead, Higashida’s thoughtful, sensitive reasoning delivers illuminating insights, especially for a parent of an autistic child—such as bestselling novelist and Man Booker Prize finalist David Mitchell, whose son has autism.
“When I read Naoki’s explanation about why kids with autism burst into tears or laughter for no apparent reason, I thought, ‘God, that’s what our boy does,’ ” said Mitchell. “Same for why kids with autism suffer meltdowns, or echo words being spoken to them, or flap their hands in front of their eyes. Of course, Naoki’s autism is his own, and there’ll never be a 100% overlap with two people’s autism, but the overlap rate with our own son’s autism was high enough for the book to be not just valuable but invaluable.”
After Mitchell and his wife, K.A. Yoshida, discovered the memoir online, the couple found it so helpful in dealing with their own son that, with no English translation available, they began to translate it into English for themselves and their son’s caretakers. They soon realized the book might be beneficial to a larger readership, and looked to traditional publishers.
Mitchell’s English translation, to which he has added a foreword, was released by Sceptre in the U.K. in July, and subsequently hit #1 on the Sunday Times list. Random House will publish the book on August 27 in the U.S. “The Reason I Jump is double-translation,” said Mitchell. “From autism to Japanese, then from Japanese to English.”
Although translating the work of a 13- year-old boy might seem like a far cry from what readers have come to expect from Mitchell, whose books include the interwoven narrative puzzle Cloud Atlas and, most recently, the epic historical novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, his fingerprints are clearly evident throughout the pages of The Reason I Jump.
“I knew Naoki was doing something new by taking us inside his head,” said David Ebershoff, Mitchell’s U.S. editor. “For me, this was the connection between David Mitchell the fiction writer and David Mitchell the translator... In both roles, he takes us inside the heads of people who, from the outside, might seem unknowable. In both roles he simultaneously shows us how extraordinary every individual is, and how familiar.”
There were a number of moments during the publication process of the book, one that began as a private endeavor between parents, which signaled to Mitchell the larger reach of Higashida’s words, and their ability to perhaps cross over genres. One such moment the author treasures was when a well-known and high-ranking publisher at Random House described her experience reading the book on her train ride into work.
According to Mitchell, she told him she found the book “so moving that she had to dab tears away discreetly from her eyes, right there in public.” Mitchell’s response: “I said something stereotypically English in reply, like, ‘That’s rather splendid to hear, thank you.’ But mentally I was doing backspins all the way down to the water-cooler while emitting a Howard Dean roar of pleasure. An autism-dad being touched and informed by The Reason I Jump is one thing, but a publishing industry executive who reads 30 books per week having a comparable reaction is another.”
The book, which consists of short chapters, serves to debunk myths about specific behaviors associated with the disorder, and contains, according to Mitchell, attitude-shifting revelations that drastically changed his day-to-day relationship with his son. But he also believes that it is a gift greater than the sum of its parts, that the sheer fact of the book and Naoki’s inclination to write it is a powerful testament to the potential for establishing a connection between those who live with autism and those who do not.
“Naoki does have autism, and pretty severe autism at that,” said Mitchell. “And yet, he both experiences and analyzes emotions, even if he can’t express these in direct speech, and has to type about them. If we ‘neurotypicals’ don’t think this is possible, I believe it shows the paucity of our imaginations and understanding.”
*This article has been corrected. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the author was a Man Booker Prize winner. He is a Man Booker Prize finalist.