For those with a distant relationship to autism—they aren’t raising a child diagnosed with it, they don’t work in a capacity to serve someone with it—the condition can be a mysterious one. So much misinformation has swirled through media and popular culture over the years that it can be confusing to know exactly what it is, where it comes from or how it presents in an individual. The general awareness of the condition typically centralizes around its external, observable factors; we busy ourselves with how to “normalize” someone’s inability to communicate or socialize, how to integrate them into an abled society as smoothly as possible. How often, though, do we stop to consider the internal dialogue of someone diagnosed “on the spectrum”? How often do we pause and investigate their actual needs, wants and preferences when building a world in which we expect them to live?
When he was 13, Naoki Higashida (who is autistic) wrote The Reason I Jump, a book about just this: his own internal experience, how his mind and memory work, how he processes information and emotions, and how he hopes to be received in a world very rarely built to for minds like his. Translated into English in 2013 by screenwriter/novelist David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas, Utopia Avenue), the book offered parents, caretakers and others an exceptional entry point into the world of loved ones with similar diagnoses. Now, filmmaker Jerry Rothwell interviews Mitchell (himself father to an autistic son), profiles autistic young adults around the world and uses Higashida’s own words to explore the inner lives of those who can’t always express themselves in ways the world understands. It’s a film of exceptional beauty; it skillfully visualizes its subjects, of course, but what’s more noteworthy are the people we meet along the way and the moments of frustration, resolve, joy and determination they share in inviting us into their everyday experiences.
Through narrated excerpts from the book (read by Jordan O’Donegan), Higashida explains how he understands how his own brain works and how that’s different from others; a young boy (Jim Fujiwara) stands in for Higashida in vignettes that thread throughout the film, as if we’re hearing his inner monologue even if he can’t speak it out loud (Higashida himself—who is now nearly 30—never appears anywhere on screen). In between, we meet Joss and Ben and Amrit and Emma and Jestina, young people (all are in their late teens or so) with nonverbal autism whose parents are their fiercest advocates as they forge ahead, determined to live lives as full and rewarding as anyone else’s. In each circumstance, the priority is to create a life of value and significance, one that affords opportunities for them to express themselves in whatever way they’re able. After struggling to find ways to communicate for years, Amrit discovers drawing, creating striking pencil-lined illustrations of her everyday life and experiences. Emma and Ben, friends since pre-school, each communicate through letter boards that allow them to spell out the thoughts they can’t otherwise articulate. Jestina’s parents have used their experience raising her as an opportunity to change the conversation around autism in Sierra Lionne, one that’s far too focused on the superstitious and uninformed.
As much as Rothwell employs traditional to-camera interviews with Mitchell and many of the parents featured in the film, he also observes his subjects in everyday moments, from Ben’s mother teaching him how to fold laundry (he and Emma are soon to move into their own apartments) to Joss’s father joining him to listen to one of the local “green boxes,” the public power boxes he can hear buzzing from afar. At one point over an outdoor dinner with Ben and Emma and their families, Ben’s mother recalls the years-long struggle to find a way to help him express himself and how she still fights the urge to jump in, to fill the silence or move the conversation along, as would be anyone’s natural instinct in a culture so concerned with filling in the gaps in our lives with content, words, music, anything but silence. It’s a moment made all the more poignant as Rothwell actually does make space for Ben, Emma and the rest to have their say, spelling out their appreciation for each other’s friendship and their frustration with a world that doesn’t offer them opportunities.
The Reason I Jump finds dazzling and moving ways to visualize the internal, as when Higashida explains the neuro-diverse way his brain works, how he has to process each individual bit of sensory information to understand that it is raining outside, for example, or how his memories are a jumble of images and sensations he has to search through every time he wants to recall one. Winner of the Audience Award for World Cinema Documentaries at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, the film achieves everything a documentary aspires to and more; it is informative and evocative as it explores its subject matter with sensitivity, and it does so with the sort of attention to detail and skill that makes it a beautifully crafted piece of art in its own right, too.
The Reason I Jump is now streaming in virtual cinemas, including Music Box Theatre At Home. A portion of your rental goes to support the theater while it’s closed.