In 2007, a 13 year old Japanese boy, Naoki Higashida, published his memoir. Called The Reason I Jump: One Boy’s Voice From The Silence Of Autism, the book describes Higashida’s experiences. The book was translated into English in 2013 by Keiko Yoshida and her husband, author David Mitchell. It went on to become a best-seller and something of a global phenomenon (the book has been translated into 30 languages).
Using Higashida’s book as both narrator and guide, Jerry Rothwell’s outstanding documentary, The Reason I Jump, examines the reality of autism and explores how it is perceived around the world.
“Naoki debunks the ideas often held about the autistic spectrum - that at one end there are geniuses and at the other fools,” Rothwell explains. “Instead, he describes a magnificent constellation of different ways of experiencing reality, which for the most part, are filtered out by the neurotypical world. For a filmmaker, this offers an opportunity to use the full potential of cinema to evoke these intense sensory worlds in which meaning is made through sounds, pictures and associations, as well as words.”
The Reason I Jump follows the experiences of five young people - Amrit in India, Joss in the UK, Ben and Emma in the US and Jestina in Sierra Leone. Each, like Higashida, have been diagnosed with non-verbal autism. Each has a compelling story to tell. Through Rothwell's observations of Amrit, Joss, Ben, Emma and Jestina, we discover that, while day to day life can be distressing (an often overwhelming assault on their senses), their world is also full of joy, promise and beauty.
The brilliance of The Reason I Jump lies in how the film combines these intimate observations with stunning visuals (full of colour and light) and immersive sound. Challenging what we think we know, Rothwell’s documentary gives us a wonderfully cinematic insight into autism.
The Reason I Jump examines the limiting narrative surrounding autism. The film highlights the benefits of developing a greater understanding and warns of the dangers of ignorance and prejudice. Jestina’s parents, Roland and Mary, reveal the stigma facing autistics in Sierra Leone (and many other places around the world). A lack of understanding has led to discrimination and hatred - something they hope to tackle via education and awareness.
Meanwhile, Joss’ parents, Stevie and Jeremy, describe their experience of living with an autistic child. It is a heartbreaking account. However, by recognising how Joss processes his memories and his surroundings, they are able to understand his actions and reactions better. As a result, they can anticipate his frustration and share experiences that bring him joy.
Finding a way to communicate is key. We see how Amrit uses art to process her world. Her paintings are both beautiful and haunting. They allow her to communicate with her family, expressing feelings that were previously locked away.
Ben and Emma spent years without being able to communicate fully. Then a speech therapy technique (involving pointing to the letters of the alphabet) gave them a voice. In moving scenes, we understand the significance of this newfound ability. It means everything - educational opportunities, increased independence and the freedom of expression.
“While no film can replicate human experience, my hope is that The Reason I Jump can encourage an audience into thinking about autism from the inside, recognising other ways of sensing the world, both beautiful and disorientating,” says Rothwell “I hope the film takes audiences on a journey through different experiences of autism, leaving a strong sense of how the world needs to change to become fully inclusive.”
Watching Rothwell’s immersive documentary is an incredibly powerful and insightful experience. The Reason I Jump opened my mind and stole my heart.
The initial idea for making The Reason I Jump came from Joss's parents, Stevie and Jeremy. Higashida’s book had transformed their understanding of their son and they wanted to make it into a film. “When I was approached to direct it, I felt a strong affinity with the project,” Rothwell recalls. “Autism has been very much a part of my life both in my extended family and in my work.”
The director had long been disturbed by society’s limiting response to non-speaking autistic people and he was impressed and surprised by Higashida’s book. “Meeting Naoki was revelatory too,” says Rothwell. “His capacity to use his alphabet board unaided to type thoughtful answers to my questions whilst at the same time being subject to distractions, impulses, and apparently random associations, was extraordinary to observe.”
Rothwell explains that “once you recognise the capacities of non-speaking autistic people and how they have been systematically overlooked, then our terrible history of institutionalisation, behaviour modification, killings becomes all the more shocking. I hope the film can play a role in changing those misconceptions.
“The idea of neurodiversity - that we all perceive the world in subtly different ways - is a powerful and important one, which I think helps build the bridges and solidarity we need for a more inclusive world.”
The idea of making the book into a film was daunting - particularly as Higashida did not want to appear on screen. Rothwell decided to take the book as a starting point and explore its themes and ideas. “It felt to me that the film’s structure should be a developing revelation of Naoki’s ideas about autism whilst immersing us in the everyday experiences of other non-speaking autistic people in different parts of the world,” he says.
Rothwell aimed to draw his audience into the world of autism from a visual and auditory perspective. “He [Higashida] describes a visual world in which he sees detail before the big picture and has to construct the world piece by piece, a world where sounds and sights can be beautiful and intense but also unsettling and confusing, where the attractions of light, water and repetitive movement provide some certainty and pleasure,” the director says.
“So we used these visual ideas in the way we shot the film - often working with macro close ups in situations where we were also shooting observationally, and to keep us in the sensory world as much as possible we minimised the use of talking heads in the film."
Sound is vitally important in the documentary. "We worked with sound artist Nick Ryan, who himself is synesthetic, to create a 360° Atmos sound design, starting from 360° recordings which we made in each location," explains Rothwell. "There’ll be a binaural mix so that those listening on headphones can also experience that immersive sound world.”
While making the film, Rothwell was well aware of the controversy about letter board or spelled communication. Some studies have questioned whether this is subject to outside influence or interpretation. “I took this scepticism seriously, going back to some of the original research as well as more recent research around language capacity,” he says. “Older quantitative studies were damning of the methods used to enable non-speaking adults to spell to communicate, but there are now far more studies that support it than refute it…
“There’s no question in my mind that Naoki is the author of his book - I’ve watched and filmed him type independently on a computer as well as a letter board - and when I met him he is at least as philosophically sophisticated as his books suggest.”
The Reason I Jump aims to address how society views people with a neuro difference. “I hope the film is part of a shift in the way we see autistic people who don’t communicate in a neurotypical way - away from the simplistic and damaging ideas of ‘mild’ and ‘severe’, ‘high functioning’ and ‘low functioning’ and towards an understanding of the constellation of iindividual strengths and challenges people face,” says Rothwell.
“I feel that all of us can identify with some of the stars in that constellation, and that recognising this can help build solidarity with and support for people, and construct a more ‘autism friendly’ world.”