The story of Naoki Higashida of Japan, detected with autism when he was five years old, takes us beyond a simple tale of hope, courage and determination. It makes us marvel about the wondrous and infinite capabilities of the human brain, as we see how he transcends the limits placed by autism to live on his own terms.
Every now and then, there comes news brave and uplifting enough to renew our faith in the invincibility of the human spirit. But the story of Naoki Higashida of Japan, detected with autism when he was five years old, takes us beyond a simple tale of hope, courage and determination. It makes us marvel about the wondrous and infinite capabilities of the human brain, as we see how Higashida, who became a published author at 13 years of age, transcends and renegotiates the limits placed by his severe, non-verbal autism to push through and learn to live on his own terms. Fall Down 7 Times Get Up 8 is 25-year-old Higashida’s 19th published work and the second book translated in English. His first book, The Reason I Jump, was written when he was 13 years old—it was translated in English in 2013. That book made him the most translated author after Haruki Murakami. Both the translations have been done by celebrated author David Mitchell (of Cloud Atlas fame) and his wife KA Yoshida, parents of an autistic child. Higashida has strong autistic traits—he jumps, flails his arms, punches his head and other limbs, erupts into anger—but has been writing and trying to communicate from a young age. For some time now, he has been using an “alphabet grid”, which is transcribed by another person—he can also speak in short bursts. Fall Down… is a collection of short pieces, a few poems and a long story called Journey. Higashida writes simply, as is to be expected, but his compositions are like pearls picked out of the depths of the sea—clear and shining—with profound observations. All he reads are picture books, but he has many years of experience of people reacting to him, saying, “whatever comes into their heads, unfiltered” and observing people’s behaviours. His inner life is rich: “Spoken language is a blue sea. Everyone else is swimming, diving and frolicking freely, while I’m alone, stuck in a tiny boat, swayed from side to side… When I’m working on my alphabet grid or my computer, I feel as if someone’s cast a magic spell and turned me into a dolphin.”
Indeed, his writing makes you wonder how he can think so lucidly! The short answer is, he doesn’t. His brain is autistically wired. He just has a different sensibility. People like us can usually make our brains do anything we think or want. Higashida’s brain “has this habit of getting lost inside things.” In The Reason I Jump, Higashida argued successfully that autism was more of a “sensory-processing and communicative impairment”, not a cognitive one. As Mitchell writes in his introduction, “these words hold a world of difference. To deny that a severely autistic brain may house a mind as curious and imaginative as anyone else’s is to perpetuate a ruinous falsehood.” Indeed, deafness was once considered a severe cognitive impairment, the reason why the adjective ‘dumb’ came to mean stupid. Higashida’s books prove Mitchell right and raise important questions about therapy and education programmes for special needs people. What if, asks Mitchell, Higashida and others like him are pioneering the next paradigm shift towards a truer understanding of the condition? That’s definitely
a cause for hope for the children and their families. At 13 years of age, Higashida had a more complete understanding of his place in the world and, despite his outward behavioural traits, he was more at peace inside than most “neurotypical” adults. He suggests that people with special needs should be encouraged to grow and develop, to be allowed to dream and have an aim in life, “more than any answer, it’s the act of imagining that really counts.” People suffering from non-verbal autism have been seen to be playing beautiful music or producing drawings, so writing isn’t that far off actually. Mitchell writes: “If The Reason I Jump was a text by a boy who had severe autism but happened to be able to write,” this new book is “by a writer who happens to have severe autism.” The book is also sound advice for those who need to interact with or simply react to autistic people. Because of his different wiring, Higashida can’t seek help or accept intervention. “If I’m agitated… please let me work through it… nothing you say is going to get through to me. Please be calm and even-tempered even when I’m mid-meltdown, and don’t try to talk me out of it.” Higashida’s life is not all great. He still steers clear of romantic relationships, his family is his secure haven. “I know I’ll never be like anyone else… but little by little, I intend to write my own story.” How I wish each of us thought like that!
There’s glory in non-conformity and the more special we are, the more interesting the story we get to write in the sands of time. Higashida also thinks there is a purpose behind special people coming into our lives. “Those who are determined to live with us and not give up on us are deeply compassionate people, and this kind of compassion must be a key to humanity’s long-term survival.” If people like Higashida can help us reconnect with the elusive fountain of kindness and empathy that is within each of us—even in these bleak times—not all is lost yet for humankind.
Paromita Shastri is a freelance writer