My son-in-law is a special ed professional focusing on helping children with varying degrees of autism. His primary modality is play therapy. Watching him at work has brought home to me the complexity of an often misunderstood malady. Which is why I was interested in the unusual documentary The Reason I Jump. The film tells the story of Naoki Higashida, a non-verbal autistic person from Japan, and through him explores the experiences of non-speaking autistic people all over the world.
Based on a book, first published in Japan in 2007 and later translated into English in 2013, this immersive film places us in the head of five autistic young adults who try to make sense of the world around them. We feel their interior thoughts as they cope with the routines of life.
The first portrait in The Reason I Jump features Amrit, a young woman in India who expresses herself through drawing pictures of images that evoke positive feelings. The second is Joss from England who likes to blow bubbles and jump on trampolines. Then the narrative shifts to Ben and Emma, residents of Arlington, Virginia. They met in pre-school and have an enduring friendship in spite of the fact that their connection is totally non-verbal. They eventually communicate via alphabet boards. The last vignette is about Jestina, who lives in Sierra Leone, where she is perceived as demon-possessed by the locals. Ultimately, her parents establish a school for Jestina and others similarly afflicted with severe autism. They work tirelessly to debunk the social stigma of having a disabled child.
The film in an evocative and impressionistic way demonstrates how the autistic mind works. Instead of focusing on the big picture and then zeroing on the details, the autistic mind first is riveted to the details, which it finds both fantastical and overwhelming. Joss, for example, focuses on the hum of electrical transformers that make distinctive sounds. To him, this is “music.” The film presents impressionistic images that evoke sensory distortion and overload as experienced by children with extreme autistic disabilities.
Ruth Carmel, a Jewish educator and parent of an autistic child, writes about how she manages the challenge of raising a child on the autism spectrum. First, she tells us to recognize the problem with all its complexity. At the end of the day, “a diagnosis is just a label, not a sentence. And, with God’s help, not unchangeable. When you know what to call a problem, you start asking questions that lead to answers.”
Second, she encourages parents to become informed: “The world is full of people and ideas that can help you; meet it halfway. Don’t isolate yourself. Go to lectures about what your kid has. Network with parents in his school. After my son’s diagnosis, I learned of a group at the local JCC for parents of special-needs kids. The first time I went there I was so sad, full of shame about my son’s condition. And then I met these parents who had gone through, more or less, what I was going through. It was so heartening to learn I was no pioneer, that there were others who had been where I was and could help me find my footing. Over the years I also found out about email groups of parents of special-needs kids. Night or day, I can ask any question or voice any fear, never having to sugarcoat my words, and there’s always a parent to listen, or share what she knows.”
Finally, she urges us to stress the positive: “It’s easier to acknowledge the bad than accept the good. When your child struggles to do what should come naturally, you can find yourself so focused on helping him overcome his deficits that you overlook his strengths. But don’t. Notice what your child can do that she couldn’t do a few years ago. Notice what he can do that normal kids can’t. Stepping back and taking perspective reminds you there’s something to celebrate.”
The Reason I Jump is an eye-opener. Watching it will give you a better understanding of the autism spectrum and will make you thankful for the life you have.