One of the things that most hampers societal attitudes towards autism is the fact that it’s so difficult for neurotypical people to understand how brains different from their own actually work. That’s where the 2007 book The Reason I Jump comes in. Though there is some controversy around its authorship, it was purportedly written by the Japanese teenager Naoki Higashida – a non-verbal autistic person. Filmmaker Jerry Rothwell has transposed Higashida’s words into a documentary, exploring the minds and lives of autistic people all over the world.
A narrated version of some of the book’s key ideas forms the spine of the film, which moves through a number of case studies, depicting the differing struggles faced by non-verbal autistic people across the world. There’s Broadstairs resident Joss and Virginia couple Ben and Emma, as well as Indian teenager Amrit and Jestina in Sierra Leone. Rothwell spans the entire planet in his discussion of the unique ways in which autistic people see the world, gently illuminating that for those of us who could never dream of experiencing life in this way.
The Reason I Jump is a delightfully sensory experience, with unique visual choices and an unconventional soundscape serving to accentuate the ideas at play. When the narration discusses the ways in which Higashida often notices the details of a scenario before the bigger picture, the soundtrack fills with the sound of raindrops hitting the ground like shards of shattered glass and waves crashing like lead weights on rocks. It’s a bracing way to knock the audience out of their comfort zone and into someone else’s shoes, in which the world is “chaotic, raw and visceral”.
Rothwell tells the story of these characters with optimism at the heart of everything he does, not soft-soaping the difficulties but focusing on the increased understanding and innovation that’s making it easier to live as a non-verbal person on the autism spectrum. It’s inspiring to see how Ben and Emma, for example, have been able to build their communication around the idea of alphabet boards, giving them a route to speech which, while imperfect, enables them to express the way they feel about each other.
The same inspiration is true in Sierra Leone, with Jestina’s mother discovering that families were hiding autistic children out of shame. Clips are shown of people advocating euthanasia for those born with “defects”. Jestina’s mum, though, has established a school that caters to those who are not neurotypical and notes that “the narrative is changing in Sierra Leone”. The Reason I Jump as a book is about a world that doesn’t understand, while the movie depicts a world seemingly beginning to do so.
The delicate complexity of The Reason I Jump is its crowning achievement. This is a movie grappling with the challenges of growing up as an autistic child, while also acknowledging the way the world is changing to make that ride less bumpy. Rothwell has constructed a movie that is as entertaining and heart-warming as it is educational, infused with aspects of sensory storytelling that have the power to depict autism in a way cinema has historically struggled to manage. It’s an impressive and important piece.
Dir: Jerry Rothwell
Scr: Naoki Higashida
Cast: Jordan O’Donegan
Prd: Jeremy Dear, Stevie Lee, Al Morrow
DOP: Ruben Woodin Dechamps
Music: Nainita Desai
Country: UK, USA
Run time: 82 minutes
The Reason I Jump screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival and has a UK cinema release planned in early 2021.