Have a nice trip through our world.
There’s no better advocate for you than you. You grasp what you’re going through. You comprehend your needs and desires. You feel the animosity and fear radiating off of those surrounding you because of their ingrained ignorance rather than your potential danger. The tragedy, however, is that we aren’t all equipped to serve that role for ourselves. We often need others to beat the drum on our behalf and work towards finding our truth. But as we’ve seen through the autistic community this past decade, the voiceless sometimes finds their voice. Those who’ve suffered silently through the hardships instilled by enemies and allies alike are able to stand-up and set the record straight if we’re willing to be decent enough to listen and ultimately admit our mistakes.
Those autistic children who grew up in a world dominated by charities that seemingly put their wellbeing at the forefront (despite their desire to “cure” rather than understand proving the opposite) are now adults with the capability to build their own self-advocacy groups that combat the damagingly ablest history those institutions fostered. They’re taking back ownership in their disorder to shift the conversation towards the reality that their disability stems more from their physical limitations and the cultural stigmatism projected upon them than this idea that neurodiversity equals cognitive inferiority. This community sees and hears everything. Its members process and understand the world around them. The issue they face is therefore about communication rather than comprehension. Just because someone is non-verbal doesn’t mean he/she has nothing to say.
Case and point is author Naoki Higashida. He wrote the book The Reason I Jump at thirteen years old in 2007 with insight and expertise beyond his years about what it’s like to be an autistic child in a neurotypical world. David Mitchell and K.A. Yoshida (who have an autistic child themselves) translated his experiences into English and helped Higashida open the world’s eyes to the fact that they’ve had it wrong for far too long. Parents who struggled with believing their role was to force their children onto a path of “normalcy” discovered that there were ways for their sons and daughters to explain how their current path already was normal. That’s a huge course correction—one that the families Jerry Rothwell‘s cinematic adaptation highlights embraced whole-heartedly.
The film seeks to both show how its subjects (Amrit Khurana, Joss Dear, Emma Budway, Benjamin McGann, and Jestina Penn-Timity) have seen their lives improved with this shift in understanding and to give its audience an approximation of the sensory-based existences they lead via extreme close-ups, shallow focus, and aural soundscapes. When Joss covers his ears, the dialogue of those around him becomes muffled. When the electric boxes he hears in the distance whirr, it’s like our ears have been pressed against them. Emma’s music and Simon game beep around her as we read hers and Benjamin’s thoughts as subtitles spelled out with the help of an alphabet chart. Rothwell puts us into their homes to witness the joy and the anxiety, the excited jumps and frightening screams.
Jordan O’Donegan narrates Higashida’s words whenever their lesson holds relevance to the visuals on-screen. He speaks about how his memories flood back in ways that make them as impactful as events that just happened all while watching the phenomenon manifest in Joss’s day-to-day. He talks about repetition being a reprieve from the chaos and uncertainty of the world alongside his obsessiveness towards certain objects being a means to find calm as we see Emma press the buttons of her game to hear the beats and Jestina engross herself in the shiny ribbon she never lets leave her hands. Higashida is in Japan, Amrit in India, Joss in the UK, Emma and Benjamin in America, and Jestina in Sierra Leone and yet they’re connected just the same.
This international scope is crucial too because it shows how our communities and heritage can be harmful. Mitchell isn’t naïve enough to forget that the world his child is growing up in now wasn’t the same as the one that existed just a couple decades ago. The stigma was unavoidable. The bile and hopelessness was exacerbated. But rather than take his word for it (or our own memories of having seen those things in action during or through popular culture), we only have to look at what the Penn-Timity family is up against in West Africa thanks to inherent ignorance and bias making it so their neighbors believe autistic kids are possessed by the devil. Centuries of fear and decades of education are placed on-screen together.
What is ignored somewhat, however, is the truth that none of this is possible without the necessary resources to make it so. I get why (this is a story about autism from those with autism), but it’s difficult not to see the privilege and security of money behind it. Not every family will have the financial ability (or industry assistance) to give their daughter a solo art show. Not every family has the means to give their child the support they need through counselors and/or private institutions. Joss’s father is a producer on the film and Jestina’s parents open a school. I don’t know how much money propels either fact, but it is worth questioning regardless of the priceless impact of both. This isn’t happening in a vacuum.
Hopefully audiences will see The Reason I Jump and acknowledge the ways in which they can help too. To see the marked improvement of independence and lifestyle in Emma and Benjamin after being given an alphabet chart to articulate their thoughts and answer questions posed to them with more than incoherent sounds is to realize the importance of accessibility, empathy, and patience. What can we do as a species to provide such things to those who need them without always defaulting to a selfish desire for compensation? How can we help change the conversation by inviting those it concerns into the dialogue not only as participants, but also as its leaders? Understanding is the first step. Hearing Higashida’s words while watching the others flourish beautifully leads the way.
courtesy of Kino Lorber