Who do you picture when you think of an autistic person? Whatever image comes into your mind is likely incorrect. Or at least limited. From The Big Bang Theory's Sheldon Cooper, to Rain Man's Raymond Babbitt, autism is something that manifests completely individually from person to person, with all of them simply ticking some of the same diagnostic boxes. Sensory issues, social and communication difficulties and repetitive behaviours. Beyond that, autism can look like absolutely anyone.
Jerry Rothwell's documentary The Reason I Jump, taken from the book by Naoki Higashida, focuses on those seen to be on the more “extreme” end of the spectrum. Those who are unable to speak. Higashida himself, is a non-speaking autistic Japanese man who wrote the book when he was 13. He stunned those around him with the sophistication of his language, and his ability to explain his own experiences and ways of viewing the world. Rothwell's film takes this to heart, attempting to re-create the sensory experience of autism on screen. Ruben Woodin Dechamps cinematography takes us close to the details of the world, forcing us to focus on individual details of unassuming objects and moments; sparkling water, crawling caterpillars, bubbles bursting. We are then occasionally shown moments of fleeting chaos and fast moving images, clearly designed to reflect the sensory experiences of the autistic people whose stories are being told.
Nick Ryan's sound design too, amplifies the effects of the images. Lending itself to a surround system or headphones, the sounds move past and around you. The Reason I Jump wraps you in a blanket of sensory input, potentially giving the neurotypical population a glimpse into another world. Interestingly it may be that this bombardment of unfiltered information may be overwhelming or inaccessible to some autistic viewers. But in this case, it feels as though the filmmakers are aiming for expanding empathy, as opposed to limiting viewership.
We are introduced to five autistic people from around the world, all with varying command of spoken language. Amrit in India seems not to talk at all, but communicates her experiences through pottery and drawing. Ben and Emma in the United States have a long friendship despite there being no talking between them, and we are shown how they have used accessibility aids to finally be able to communicate with their families. This is a heartwarming thing to see, as we are shown just how eloquent and sophisticated they are, despite outward appearances. Joss is in the UK, and though he can speak he relies on echolalia, recycling stock phrases and picking whichever one is the best fit for the situation he is in. This is obviously limited and causes a lot of frustration for him. Jestina lives in Sierra Leone, facing discrimination from her neighbours due to cultural beliefs that lead them to believe she is possessed or damaged in some way. Her parents determination to improve not just her quality of life but that of other children in a similar position, despite ongoing resistance, is truly inspiring.
Their stories are told by their parents, through their communication aids and via voiceovers of passages from Naoki Higashida's book. The parents we see are all wonderfully supportive and progressive, wanting and doing the best for their children. Despite this we see some moments of guilt for the parents previous actions when they had less understanding of their children's complicated needs. It's a refreshing view, we are exposed to their burdens, of which there are many, but this is never at the expense of dehumanising their children. It feels honest, they would do anything for these young adults who are determined to gain more independence, and they have worked tirelessly to provide them with the best support they can. It's a beautiful and heartening thing to see.
There are small moments that show the darker sides of autism, meltdowns, discrimination, and the fear that these parents won't be around to support their children forever. But there is no examination really of previous or even ongoing problematic “treatments” or cures or any of the things that would potentially alienate or re-traumatise autistics who choose to watch it. This may face criticism from some parties, as it may be seen as one sided, and The Reason I Jump gives us a very rose-tinted view of things. However, don't we deserve that? Just this once?
The Reason I Jump is released on June 18th