How do profoundly autistic people experience the world? We might make educated guesses from the behavior of some — such as seeming physical and emotional meltdowns in the face of apparent sensory overstimulation — that it is acutely different from how the rest of us navigate the boundaries between our inner and outer lives. Better than guessing, though: What if people who are autistic and nonverbal were able to tell us what’s going on with them, were able to share how they feel and what they’re thinking?
That is what Naoki Higashida does in his bestselling 2015 book The Reason I Jump, written when he was 13 years old. Allegedly. There is enormous contention around the account attributed to the severely autistic boy. Is it, perhaps, more the result of wishful thinking on the part of his mother, who guided him through a form of facilitated communication — pointing to characters on a board to craft sentences and paragraphs — to help him write the book?
The questions about the authenticity of the words and ideas attributed to Higashida would be a problem if British documentarian Jerry Rothwell’s film of the same name were a direct adaptation of the book. Instead, Rothwell (How to Change the World) uses it as a springboard to introduce us to several young people around the world who are neurodiverse and nonverbal, yet far from noncommunicative. A young woman in India creates stunning paintings of her everyday life, ones that tell vivid stories and speak of her keen observations of the people and places around her, and of her recognition of the relationships between and among them all. A young man and woman in the United States share a lively best-friendship, even ribbing each other and complaining about the poor education they received, using similar forms of facilitated communication to Higashida… and they are very clearly, very obviously unprompted and undirected. They truly are expressing themselves in ways that are genuine. So might Higashida have been as well?
Others of the autistic young people we meet here are less able to relay what they are thinking and feeling, but we are offered some insight — perhaps — via Higashida’s words, spoken in narration (in English) by actor Jordan O’Donegan. Ruben Woodin Dechamps’s extraordinary cinematography immerses us in a perspective focused on tiny details rather than big pictures, of time jumbled up so that long ago and right now feel indistinguishable, of wandering in a landscape that is isolating but also intensely engaging and inescapably gripping. Rothwell depicts this in a way both literal and figurative, with sequences following Jim Fujiwara, a nonverbal autistic child actor meant to represent Higashida at the age when he wrote his book, as he explores huge, quiet places of both structural and natural beauty.
Is there a danger that we are falsely equating what an explosively angry British teenager is experiencing with the soothing explanation Higashida has for why he lashes out, what is the root of his rage? Perhaps. But it is the beginning of understanding, and the empathy it engenders is deeply felt and enormously eye-opening.