I don’t watch many documentaries about autism, and on the rare occasion when I sit down to watch one, I am overwhelmed with a sense of dread. So much rubbish is said on the subject, even by people who want to be on the right side. So many patronising tropes, so much pity, not enough solidarity.
In preparation for watching The Reason I Jump, I speed-read the book on which it is based. In 2007, thirteen-year-old Japanese boy Naoki Higashida wrote about how he experienced the world as a non-speaking autistic person. Particularly since its translation into English in 2013, the book has enabled many people to see the autistic viewpoint in a way they had not done before.
In places, Naoki’s negativity about himself disappointed me, but as a description of how and why autistic people see things and act in certain ways, the book has great educational value.
Naoki worked with the film-makers but refused to be in the film himself — a wise decision, as this compelled them to include other non-speaking autistic people as well.
From the outset, it is an immersive film, plunging the viewer into the world of sounds and lights that sometimes stimulate, sometimes comfort and sometimes overwhelm autistic people. It also told its stories from around the world, showing autistic young people in India, the USA, Sierra Leone and the UK. So far, so good. But what about the content? Would those tropes come along and spoil it?
Interestingly, they did come along but they didn’t spoil it, because they were balanced as the film went on. So Amrit, a young Indian woman, was a highly talented visual artist. Oh no, I thought, is this going to be a parade of silent geniuses? Would it be a repeat of the Rainman effect, which made so many people expect every autistic person they met to perform a party trick? No, it was just Amrit. The other characters were different.
But the first few had their stories told by their parents — another red flag for me. So often in presentations about autism, parents tell their story about how hard it is bringing up an autistic child, but the child does not get to tell their story. I know that it is hard bringing up an autistic child, but it is also hard being one. And just because these autistic people do not speak, that does not mean that they do not communicate.
The film put this right too, moving on to the stories of autistic youngsters who had been given a platform, who were using methods of communication including touching letters to spell out words. Given a means to express themselves to people who would not usually hear them, these young people revealed their opinions, feelings, friendships and intelligence.
They also revealed their anger at a discriminatory world. Ben wrote: “We were denied our civil rights”.
For sure, it helps autistic people to have neurotypical people understand us better. But the chances of a better future rest in more than enlightening individuals one cinema at a time. Discrimination is built into the structures of society, in the education, work and other systems that impose normativity and pathologise difference.
Ben’s right. And autistic people still are denied our rights. That’s the reason I fight.