Jerry Rothwell had an unenviable task in adapting Naoki Higashida’s memoir for a cinematic audience. The Reason I Jump, published when the nonverbal Autistic Higashida was thirteen, chronicles his experiences and observations of the world as written through facilitated communication. The book was a bestseller but also stirred up controversy, notably through the questionable faithfulness and framing of the English translation (often criticised for being an idealised view and the pseudoscientific practices behind some rapid prompting and facilitated communication processes). Rothwell’s The Reason I Jump cannot fully address these concerns, but by expanding the focus from beyond Higashida’s own words to the lives of four other ASD youth around the world, the documentary offers a nuanced and multifaceted exploration with minimal platitudes.
The hows and whys of communication form the documentary’s central theme. While all subjects would sit somewhere on the nonverbal side of the spectrum, there is no one manifestation of each youths’ ASD and method(s) of communication. The film does not seek to explain these differences — an impossible and reductive task — instead focusing on lived experience in its minutiae. Joss, a British teenager, is minimally verbal, but he and his family chose to move him to a residential home to help manage his violent outbursts. Ben and Emma, friends in the United States, communicate with each other, their parents, and their peers through letterboards and long walks. Amrit, in India, communicates through her drawings of her daily life. Lastly, Jestina is the youngest and currently the least able to communicate — and her parents are fighting social stigmas in Sierra Leone to build a school for their daughter and others with ASD.
Spending time with these varied subjects and their families adds new depth to Higashida’s titular memoir, whose words are conveyed through Jordan O’Donegan’s narration. Using the book as a jumping off point to explore the day-to-day experiences of many nonverbal young people is an astute move, showing how varied these experiences and challenges can be instead of advancing a single narrative or view of ‘Autistic’ traits. At one point, Ben explains how he feels his ‘civil rights’ have been denied as someone with ASD, making the essential point that if non-Autistic people are not included in the conversation it cannot be called such. Through this focus, and a visual style that takes its depiction of the world from Higashida’s descriptors, Rothwell tries to make this a deeply human conversation.
But does he succeed? The fact that non-ASD family members, specialists, and translators get much screen time and almost all non-visual narration sits uncomfortably. When communication — and the inability to do so in the neurotypical society fashion — is impossible, who should be speaking? Who is this story for, and can these (largely neurotypical) people and the cinematic medium accurately tell it? No time is devoted to the controversies surrounding the original book and its translation, though English language translator David Mitchell shows up to talk about how the book helped him relate to his nonverbal ASD son and how he believes no neurotypical brain can fully grasp how people like Higashida and his son see the world. Rothwell’s visuals — reliant on bright colour, towering monoliths, and the exaggeration of everyday noises — is only his best approximation. The conversation remains incomplete. As Higashida says ‘For us, you see, having autism is normal — so we can’t know for sure what your “normal” is even like.’ By the conclusion of its eighty minutes, The Reason I Jump has proved an empathetic starting point for further conversation and a platform for nonverbal ASD youths to communicate with a worldwide audience. But a starting point it remains, and one hopes that Rothwell’s authorship will take an increasing back seat to ASD storytellers.
The Reason I Jump screened as part of the virtual edition of BFI London Film Festival on October 9th
by Carmen Paddock
Carmen is an American living in Scotland. She holds a Masters in International Film Business from the University of Exeter / London Film School, and while now working in technology she keeps her love of film alive through overenthusiastic writing and an unhealthy amount of time spent at the cinema. Favourite films include West Side Story, 10 Things I Hate About You, Ever After, and Thor: Ragnarok. Follow her on Twitter @CarmenChloie