Based on a book of the same name purportedly written (more on that later) by Naoki Higashida—a Japanese man with nonverbal autism—The Reason I Jump from director Jerry Rothwell follows the lives of people around the world who also have the disorder, a subset of autism defined by an inability to speak.
Also featured throughout are their family members, including translator David Mitchell (not the comedian), who helped render Higashida’s prose in English.
Blending interviews, a re-enactment of Higashida’s childhood, and photography montages doesn’t make for entirely successful filmmaking. It muddles the lines between documentary and film. They aren’t mutually exclusive categories of course—this is after all a documentary film—but they do entail different qualities. Here, Rothwell opts for a heavily-graded visual aesthetic which consequently makes the non-fiction sequences look less real. The stylisation does have a pragmatic use though. Combined with carefully-constructed sound design, its presence in the montages accentuates the intense, vibrant sensory experience of a nonverbal autistic person to the non-autistic viewer. The dividing line between these two groups gets nearer to the heart of The Reason I Jump’s purpose.
The film’s stated ambition is to convey messages from nonverbal autistic persons themselves, one of whom says “I think we can change the conversation [about autism] by being part of the conversation.” It’s a familiar take on this topic; the struggle to communicate in a world that doesn’t know how to understand them, and to be accepted for who they are. Sounds simple right? Unfortunately, the truth is messier.
There are three parts to separate here. The first two—filmmaking, which is decent, and the arguments, which are persuasive—do not pose any difficulties. But then a third rears its head. The second act promotes a therapy technique called facilitated communication, in which a therapist guides the hand of a nonverbally autistic person onto a letter board, so that they can formulate words and sentences. It may seem innocuous, but a passing comment about gainsayers disputing its reputability ought to tip you off that there is more going on than is being said. Facilitated communication has been discredited as pseudoscientific by the scientific establishment. It falls foul of the ‘ideomotor phenomenon,’ whereby the subconscious desires of the adult guiding the hand create the sentences that are apparently being expressed by their patient.
This phenomenon has left the veracity of Higashida’s book, which was itself written through facilitated communication, in dispute. And the more context one assimilates, the more problems arise. Are lines like “nobody wants to be left alone” and “[the world has] denied our civil rights” the genuine pleas of the nonverbal, or those of anguished parents seeking liberal solutions? Is the narrative voice (rendered here by an actor) that of Higashida, or of his mother? None of these questions are raised by the film itself, which deliberately misrepresents facilitated communication in order to make an argument that otherwise couldn’t be won.
Everyone who watches The Reason I Jump will yearn to believe that nonverbal autistic persons have an external voice trapped inside by their disability. However, even in the face of scientific evidence to the contrary, a defence of faith comes through. For the parents in extremis behind this documentary, it might be better to believe their mute sons and daughters have voices to be heard, rather than live with the possibility that their inner-worlds could be forever closed.
Ordinarily, a documentary promoting a pseudoscience that brings the words of its own subjects into doubt would collapse under such irreconcilable tension. But the parents of the nonverbally autistic aren’t making their case from an ordinary position. The Reason I Jump compels us to understand that, whether we like its conclusions or not.
The Reason I Jump is out in UK cinemas now.
Words by Alex Crisp.
Support The Indiependent
We’re trying to raise £200 a month to help cover our operational costs. This includes our ‘Writer of the Month’ awards, where we recognise the amazing work produced by our contributor team. If you’ve enjoyed reading our site, we’d really appreciate it if you could donate to The Indiependent. Whether you can give £1 or £10, you’d be making a huge difference to our small team.