The cinematic language of The Reason I Jump, an ambitious documentary which attempts to simulate the sensory experience of non-verbal autism, is elemental, building up one isolated detail at a time. A living room, for example, emerges from the cascading, metallic tide of an electric fan, from the frisson of sizzling oil in a frying pan, from the wafting glow of sunlight refracted through a plastic water bottle. The scene is an act of double translation: Naoki Higashida’s book of the same name, written when he was 13 years old to map his experience of non-verbal autism, reimagined by film-maker Jerry Rothwell into a cinematic approximation of autistic perception – the sensory overwhelm, the hyper-intensity of details, the destabilizing fluidity of memory – for a neuro-typical audience.
The intention of The Reason I Jump, as both a book (originally published in Japanese in 2007 and translated into English six years later by a team including the Cloud Atlas novelist David Mitchell) and a film (which won an audience award at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival) is explicitly didactic, a missive to explain one person’s neuro-divergent experience and a broader call to expand one’s imagination of human cognition. “My big hope is that by writing this book, I can explain in my own way what goes on in my mind,” wrote Higashida, his words recited in voiceover by Jordan O’Donegan as a young Japanese-British child (Jim Fujiwara) runs through a field.
Between a quarter to half of people with autism spectrum disorder experience some limitation of spoken language, from fully non-verbal to utterances. Rothwell’s film, with the help of sound designer Nick Ryan and cinematographer Ruben Woodin Dechamps, ambitiously transmutes Higashida’s words into an evocative, conscientious portal into a world without speech, through the daily experience of five people with non-verbal autism.
Mitchell, also the film’s co-screenwriter and father to a son who is on the spectrum, describes Higashida’s writing in the film as “cartography” for a neural experience he has witnessed but struggled to understand. The book “turned on its head, really, a lot of understanding about non-speaking autism that has grown up over the last few decades”, Rothwell said. “The idea that Naoki doesn’t possess a theory of mind is pretty blown out of the water.” A project seven years in the making, Rothwell first envisioned focusing the film on Higashida, whom he met at the author’s home in Japan. But the writer did not want to appear on-screen, leading Rothwell to connect Higashida’s words to the lives of five different non-verbal autistic people in four different countries. “How do these words that this 12-year-old in a Tokyo suburb has written, how do they relate to other non-speaking autistic people around the world?” he wondered. “Can they help immerse us in different people’s lives?”
The five participants “represent a constellation of different takes on an experience of autism”, said Rothwell, “but they have massively different skills and challenges, the same as any other group of human beings”. Amrit, a young woman in Noida, India, channels the accumulation and arrangement of details, expressions and chaotic scenes from her mind into a seemingly prolific array of abstract paintings. Joss, whose parents Stevie Lee and Jeremy Dear co-produced the film, evinces both the joy and terror of sensory overwhelm, whether from lights (soothing) or adolescent emotions (derailing). Joss’s hyper-specific recollection – he has limited verbal communication and can recall details from as early as age two – overlays Higashida’s description of autistic memory: “Time is a continuous thing with no clear boundaries, which is why it’s so confusing … I imagine other people’s memories are arranged continuously like a line. My memory is more like a pool of dots – memories are all scattershot and never connected in the right order.” The film rapidly splices home video with Joss’s present, awaiting pizza with his parents, evoking his experience of continuous, destabilizing jolts in time and emotion.
In Arlington, Virginia, childhood best friends Ben and Emma attend progressive home-schooling facilitated by pointing to alphabet letter-boards (the widespread efficacy of this communication method, known as the rapid prompting method, remains controversial in autism research circles, but the film emphasizes neuro-typical people’s misguided proclivity to conflate non-speaking with lack of comprehension, and demonstrates the benefit of the method in Ben and Emma’s cases). The pair demonstrate a more concrete demand for neuro-divergent recognition and inclusion, be that in education or the basic assumption of competence. “I think we can change the conversation around autism by being part of the conversation,” says Ben through the letter-board. The film concludes in Sierra Leone, where Jestina and her parents confront superstition, demonization and lack of understanding metastasized into fear as they work to open the country’s first special needs school.
In each case, the film’s more liminal, experimental elements – the heightened sound, the slideshows of closeups – occasionally cede to the perspective of the parents, whose ability to articulate experience and emotions often, in stories of non-verbal autism, inadvertently steers the story in their direction. “The parents have definitely had a huge experience — they’ve had a child, the child’s been diagnosed with autism, they’ve come to try and understand that,” said Rothwell. “That’s a big journey, but it’s not the autistic person’s journey.”
One of the biggest challenges in making the film, he added, was balancing the primacy of the non-verbal experience with the useful and grounding context provided by neuro-typical parents. “I do think that there are things about context that are very helpful in watching the film and in understanding the people you’re seeing, and what their historical experience has been,” he said. “It was a balance and a bit of a struggle in how much to do that.”
A trickier balance still is tempering the film’s broad call for recognition and empathy, and the general language written by a young teenager, with the innumerable individual experiences of autism and speech limitations. “I’m really wary of even saying the film is about autism,” Rothwell said. “I feel like it’s about these five people that you meet, and [Higashida], and it tries to kind of immerse you inside of this larger perspective for an hour and a half. Beyond that, it certainly doesn’t speak for all autistic people.”
Still, Rothwell said he ultimately hopes the film will crack open the imaginations of neuro-typical people, unlink the assumption of non-speaking with non-thinking, and upend “the cultural recognition of the fact that non-speaking doesn’t mean you’re non-understanding, that you’re stupid or that you can’t learn.”
If the film could point people to Higashida’s books, to the writing of other non-verbal autistic people, to a voice “so generally disregarded,” he said, “that would be exciting”.