Autism As A Foreign Language: David Mitchell

Around the time that David Mitchell was writing his epic, polyphonic, pan-historical novel, Cloud Atlas, a 13-year-old Japanese boy named Naoki Higashida was working on a kind of memoir about his own autism. Naoki’s condition was severe enough that he could only do this by pointing to the relevant characters on a custom-made cardboard alphabet grid. With great effort and patient assistance, he compiled a list of answers to the most frequently asked questions about his behaviour. The resulting book was titled The Reason I Jump, and first published in Japan almost a decade ago. David Mitchell didn’t hear of it until years later, when his own young son was diagnosed with autism.

“Before that, I had no reason to know anything about it,” says Mitchell. “Like a lot of people, I only knew Rain Man and The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night Time [Mark Haddon’s 2003 bestseller, recently adapted into an award-winning stage play]. Those are the two main points of contact in our popular culture, and they pretty much define how we think about autism.” Which is to say that sufferers are often assumed to be mathematical savants or zero-affect obsessive-compulsives. Sometimes they are, or seem to be, particularly at the Asperger’s end of the spectrum. But Mitchell’s son (whom he would rather not name here, in the interests of privacy) was only 16 months old on what the author calls “Diagnosis Day”.

Many of his symptoms were upsetting or alarming, and not necessarily accounted for in the available literature on the subject. “There are plenty of manuals written by academics, or carers, or high-functioning autistics,” says Mitchell. “I’m glad that they exist, but they couldn’t really help us with what we saw exploding in front of us on the kitchen floor.” At some point in that early phase of frantic reading up, Mitchell’s wife Keiko ordered a copy of Naoki Higashida’s book from Japan. Keiko herself is Japanese – the couple first met when Mitchell was teaching English in Hiroshima, where he lived for years and wrote his first two novels, Ghostwritten and Number 9 Dream.

For his own part, he can still speak and read the language reasonably well, though he’ll admit to getting rusty since they moved to the west of Ireland (and also to using iPhone applications for emails that fool his in-laws into thinking that his written Japanese is much better than it is). In The Reason I Jump, they found personal explanations for their son’s behavioural tics, written by someone who shared them. To take one of the milder examples, the adolescent author could tell them exactly why he often flaps his fingers in front of his eyes.

“Because if he doesn’t, the light feels too needly,” says Mitchell, paraphrasing slightly. “Apparently it’s that simple, but we’d never have guessed it.” To hear Mitchell tell it, they started translating those answers almost instinctively, though Keiko did “most of the heavy lifting”. His own role as a world-famous and widely translated novelist, “was just to put some style and nuance on top”. If autism itself is a kind of language – cryptic, non-verbal, and little understood – then their finished version of The Reason I Jump is doubly translated.

“From autism to Japanese, and Japanese to English,” he says, before wondering if that description is adequate. “In another way, people with autism have no mother tongue, and all languages are foreign to them.” Given that impediment, the fact of the book’s existence seemed remarkable enough to Mitchell, but Naoki’s prose style somehow made him sound much like a “normal” 13-year-old boy. “If you like, there’s a third layer to the translation, because we wanted to keep his slightly juvenile impetuousness.” And there is also perhaps another layer underneath that, a sound that may be audible only to the Mitchells themselves. “Reading Naoki’s answers to so many of our specific questions, it was very much like hearing our son talk to us, and saying what he would say if he could communicate it. And that is as extraordinary as you think. Your own kid, who has never spoken to you, and will never do so easily or naturally, suddenly has this voice.”

Mitchell, who does not believe in God or any other kind of mysticism, has no problem calling this “a blessing”. He and Keiko are effectively spreading the word. “First, we wanted to help parents in our position, who have an autistic kid and no real idea what’s happening on the inside. More generally, we’d like to help the public understand the autistic kid behind them on a plane, or in the queue they’re standing in. “We thought this book could be our small contribution to making the world more autism-friendly, which is an absurdly vast aspiration, but also quite humble as well.”

From Mitchell’s introduction alone, the general reader will probably learn more than they have ever known about this condition. They may also be corrected on certain misconceptions, such as the common belief that autism is an entirely mental or emotional problem. Taking Naoki’s cue, he outlines the additional, physiological effects by describing how it would feel for a non-sufferer to suddenly find themselves autistic: “Colours and patterns swim and clamour for your attention. The fabric conditioner in your sweater smells as strong as air-freshener fired up your nostrils … Your head feels trapped inside a motorbike helmet three sizes too small … ” Most people think of humans as having only five senses, but Mitchell explains there are at least seven. The “vestibular” and the “proprioceptive” – those senses relating to physical equilibrium and spatial awareness – can be particularly scrambled by autism, often leaving sufferers seasick and stumbling in the dark.

On top of all this lies the “massive communication block” that tends to prevent them from talking about it. “If you or I were transported into a neuro-atypical mind right now, we would be sectioned by half-past six this evening,” says Mitchell. “We couldn’t hack it. But they live there, and they do hack it. As a parent, or teacher, or assistant in a shoe shop with an autistic customer, you’re not dealing with a problem, you’re dealing with a hero.”

Within the book itself, Naoki seems to suggest that autism also confers a kind of superpower by way of compensation. He sees the bright side of the condition as a heightened receptivity to beauty and a closer, almost preternatural relationship with nature. “[People with autism] are a different kind of human, born with primeval senses,” he writes. “We are more like travellers from the distant, distant past … we are outside the normal flow of time … Sometimes I actually pity you for not being able to see the beauty of the world in the same way we do … ”

Much of this reads like a heightened case of standard teenage solipsism, but also corresponds to claims made by autistic bloggers (now in his early 20s, Naoki himself has become a regular blogger since writing the book) – that they have somehow evolved along a divergent strand of our species, which vibrates at a frequency more attuned to the planet itself.

“My first response is, ‘whatever gets you through the night’,” says Mitchell. “It’s their condition, and they’re entitled to that view. “I’d be cautious about endorsing it myself, because it can distract from the day-to-day difficulties of autism, and the history of the disability does not make for pretty reading. Until quite recently, infanticide was a common fate. On the other hand, I see it in my son when we go for walks in the woods. He looks up at the sky and the trees like they’re talking to him, and he smiles as if he’s being told an amusing story.

“Added to which, he doesn’t lie, or cheat, or have an acquisitive bone in his body. He has qualities that we associate with saints. But that’s another reason why he will need help to survive in this world. It doesn’t do him any good to romanticise his situation.” Above all else, says Mitchell, Naoki Higashida’s book is a spectacular show of empathy, from the depths of an illness that is often thought to prohibit that most human form of thought and expression. Speaking for his fellow sufferers, he tells us that we make their lives harder and more lonely than they need to be.

“We’re anxious about causing trouble for the rest of you,” he writes, in the voice that Mitchell and his wife have worked hard to keep simple and clear. “The truth is, we’d love to be with other people. But because things never, ever go right, we end up getting used to being on our own … “We know we’re making you sad and upset, but we don’t have any say in it, I’m afraid, and that’s the story. But please, whatever you do, don’t give up on us.”

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