Review - Unexpected emotion

20th September 2013 at 01:00
One boy's moving account of his autism offers lessons for us all

Non-fiction and I usually do not get along. So I opened The Reason I Jump, a real-life account of living with autism, fully expecting to have to work hard to read all the way to the end. But this is a book that defies expectations, starting with how easy it is to get absorbed in it.

The readability is in part down to the involvement of novelist David Mitchell as a translator. Best known for the Booker Prize-nominated Cloud Atlas, Mitchell is a man who knows his way around a piece of crowd-pleasing fiction. However, Naoki Higashida (inset, right) is the real star of the show here, despite the famous name that joins his on the cover.

Born in 1992 and having had "autistic tendencies" diagnosed in 1998, Naoki wrote the book when he was just 13 years old with the help of the cardboard keyboard on which he learned to communicate. Despite being severely autistic, his narrative voice is honest and confident. I warmed to him instantly.

People with autism are routinely dismissed as being emotionless, but I found myself surprised again and again by how full of emotion this book is. While I have worked enough with autistic students to know that there is more to them than meets the eye, I have perhaps not always placed their emotional depth quite on a par with my own or that of their classmates. Reading this book made me realise that I have been guilty of making assumptions.

"Please don't judge us from the outside only," Naoki begs, while talking about the pain of being unable to communicate to others what he is feeling on the inside. "I, too, exist in this world as a human being."

This is a frustration that we can all relate to. In this age of digital communication, when tweets and text messages are routinely misinterpreted, it is easy to understand how maddening it must be to work as hard as you can to express yourself exactly, only to find yourself still misunderstood on a daily basis.

Teachers will recognise many of Naoki's difficulties from their own experience, the only difference being the degree of struggle or the extremity of response. Through his writing, Naoki is able to help us understand that. His openness makes him easy to relate to and empathise with.

The Reason I Jump is a book for anyone who works with young people with autism. It is a resource for parents and carers or for people who simply want a touching, informative read.

Autism covers a wide spectrum. It is important to remember that people with the condition are as many and varied as people without it. This is only one story - but reading it might make you more receptive to the thousands of similar tales still struggling to be told. I am glad I took the time to listen to this one. I would urge you to do the same.

Helen Amass is a former teacher of secondary English. The Reason I Jump: one boy's voice from the silence of autism by Naoki Higashida is published by Sceptre, #163;12.99


1. Action plan

This mind map breaks down information on autism into five categories and provides useful strategies for teachers.


2. Strategic setting

What makes for an autism-friendly environment? This resource provides an explanatory presentation, a strategy bank and a set of visual task cards.


3. Social skills

Explore the difficulties that autistic children face in social interaction in order to better address their needs.


4. Teaching empathy

Help children to understand the emotions of others with this PowerPoint storybook. A simple presentation that makes a good starting point for discussion.


5. Right angles

This colourful poster illustrates five approaches to consider when supporting children with autism. Stick it on the wall in whichever room you use for doing your planning.


6. Awaken awareness

Encourage students on the autistic spectrum to identify how their condition might affect them with this multitude of adaptable worksheets, activities and visual aids.


7. Video viewpoint Change your perspective and gain an insight into what autism can mean for a student's education with this video which describes the experiences of three brothers.


8. Film focus

This FilmClub resource offers a way of exploring autism through movies such as Rain Man (inset, left). It gives detailed notes, summaries and points to discuss in class.


9. Friendship circle

Investigate setting up a National Autistic Society friendship circle support system with this guide on how to implement the approach in your school.


10. Rich rewards

Help your autistic students to help themselves through this reward system which gives treats for good behaviour.


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