Just yesterday, a couple of days after I wrote my post on the "Normal Child Inside Fallacy," I find myself reading about yet another nonverbal, autistic child who, despite all we know about the deep brain differences in autism and its fundamental nature as a disorder of social communication, somehow emerges as communicatively normal.
The child in question is Naoki Higashida, a Japanese 13-year-old whose book, "The Reason I Jump," has just been translated into English and is reviewed in this week's NY Times Book Review. According to reviewer Sally Tisdale, Higashida wrote by "spelling out words on a Japanese alphabet letter board."
The book focuses on Higashida's difficulties with sensory processing, organizing itself around questions like “Why do you speak in that peculiar way?”, “Why do you like spinning?”, and, of course, "Why do you like to Jump". On this last topic, Higashida's book says:
The motion makes me want to change into a bird and fly off to some faraway place. But constrained by ourselves and by the people around us, all we can do is tweet-tweet, flap our wings and hop around in a cage.Apparently, Higashida can type on a computer and read aloud what he has written. Given this, one would hope for a chapter called "Why are you considered nonverbal when you can write and read out loud?"
In Tisdale's words, Higadisha also "can’t remember rules, sit still or make sense of time." Nonetheless, he is "bright and thoughtful" and "maintains a blog and has written other books." His American publisher calls him a “motivational speaker.”
What do we make of yet another individual who supposedly meets the criteria for autism and can't speak extemporaneously but who somehow writes with a level of introspection and a non-literal literary style far beyond anything ever been written by the best-known, most studied autistic writer whose high functioning autism is totally without question???
In making sense of Higashida in particular, Tisdale reports, there's an additional layer of uncertainty:
The book comes to English readers through the passionate efforts of David Mitchell, the author of “Cloud Atlas” and the father of an autistic child. Mitchell and his wife, KA Yoshida, provided the translation.The book, Tisdale notes, contains such English colloquialisms as "It really gets me down.” Did the original Japanese sound as neurotypical?
And how much is David Mitchell's translation colored by his personal agenda and wishful thinking?
Mitchell believes the book is proof that the standard definition of autism is wrong, that autism’s obvious restrictions of socialization and communication “are not symptoms of autism but consequences.” Higashida, he has also said, is “more of a writer than I am.”As Tisdale writes:
... Unfortunately, it’s impossible to sort out what is Higashida here and what is Mitchell. The two have never met in person, and Higashida had almost no involvement in the English edition. Mitchell has said that Yoshida “did the heavy lifting” from the Japanese, and that he “provided the stylistic icing on the cake.”But how much does the icing flavor the cake? Tisdale, herself the parent of an autistic child, concludes her review with this powerful point:
Mitchell writes that reading “The Reason I Jump,” he “felt as if, for the first time, our own son was talking to us about what was happening inside his head.” No parent of an autistic person — and I include myself here — can help longing for such a chance, and looking for it wherever we can. We have to be careful about turning what we find into what we want.