The Reason I Jump is based on the bestselling memoir by the nonverbal Autistic Naoki Higashida. Supposedly written using facilitated communication techniques, the book attempts to articulate Higashida’s first-person understanding of the disorder. Using his personal experiences, memories and interactions with others to translate how his mind works to a neuro-typical reader. The film takes that mission statement and expands it out, beyond Higashida’s experience to cover a variety of severely Autistic young people, both verbal and non-verbal. All while providing one of the most potent attempts to use the language of cinema to replicate their perspective.
The film serves as a window into the lives of five different Autistic people. Showing how they live, how ASD affects them, how it affects their parents and the tools they use to navigate the world. Some, such as the British teenager Joss, attend residential school, much to the heartbreak of his parents. Others such as long-time friends Ben and Emma have developed communication through character boards and the assistance of speech therapist Elizabeth Vosseller. The one thing that unifies these people (besides ASD, obviously) is that they have all developed some form of communication. Demonstrating that Autism does not so much cripple one’s ability to communicate as redirect it to less conventional mediums.
The touchingly told portraits of these people would be fascinating in its own right. However, The Reason I Jump takes the disorder beyond the limits of content. Providing a holistic experience that is determined to show the audience the world through the eyes and ears of someone with Autism. Distinct sounds are raised; the hum of a generator, the pitter patter of rain, the straining sound of bubble wrap, all one piece of the puzzle that an Autistic person puts together to understand what is happening. People are shot in close-up or through objects such as spinning fans to distort our recognition. We even get a sense of the textures of certain objects, the feel of the world that is so vital to forming connections. The documentary is one of the most detailed, intense, sensory experiences to be released all year.
As with the book the film has a tendency to offer unnecessary platitudes. It shows many of its subjects succeeding in their efforts to achieve independence. A sense of normality, whatever that may be. It does not need the narration attempting to philosophise on its quest to help others understand when the film performs this task so ably.
It is hard to say though if the Reason I Jump actually accomplishes its goal. As co-translator David Mitchell points out it is impossible for a neuro-typical mind to truly understand a neuro-atypical mind. However, it is an ambitious attempt and, speaking from experience, the closest cinema has come to portraying ASD. The overwhelming emotions that are impossible to articulate, the feeling that people are speaking to you in a foreign language. It is a measured approach, highlighting the challenges Joss and Ben and Emma and Amrit face going forward. Yet it remains wholly optimistic. Nonverbal or not, these people can speak to us – if only we’re willing to listen.