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Neurodiversity In Sound & Screen: Interview With 'The Reason I Jump' Director Jerry Rothwell

Updated: Feb 15, 2021

by Alex Elder

We set out to immerse the audience in nonspeaking peoples’ worlds, much in the same way that the book immerses us in Naoki’s world.”
A still from the 2020 film 'The Reason I Jump'. A boy walks through a monochrome curved hallway space.
Still: 'The Reason I Jump' (dir. Jerry Rothwell; 2020)

Imagine a daily life in which your faculty of speech is taken away. Explaining that you’re hungry, or tired, or in pain, is now as beyond your powers as a chat with a friend. After you lose your ability to communicate, the editor-in-residence who orders your thoughts walks out without notice. A dam-burst of ideas, memories, impulses and thoughts is cascading over you, unstoppably. Your mind is a room where twenty radios, all tuned to different stations, are blaring out voices and music.

The radios have no off-switches or volume controls, the room you’re in has no door or window, and relief will come only when you’re too exhausted to stay awake. You are no longer able to comprehend your mother-tongue, or any tongue: from now on all languages will be foreign languages. Even your sense of time has gone, rendering you unable to distinguish between a minute and an hour.

- Abridged from David Mitchell’s introduction to 'The Reason I Jump' by Naoki Higashida


When you think about it, verbal communication is an astonishing phenomenon. The system of meaning transfer you use to chat rubbish with your friends or that some, unfortunately, use to spread dangerous conspiracies or hate is the very same medium that has allowed humans to master their surroundings via cooperation and information sharing. Verbal language is unique, no other species can do it and it's a characteristic that is definitely taken for granted by neurotypical humans.

Jerry Rothwell's new film adaptation of Naoki Higashida's bestselling book, The Reason I Jump, attempts to help us understand the sensory world of nonspeaking autistic people. It's a world where individuals are shut out of the arena of speech that most of us use in our every waking hour. It's a world without much in the way of a hierarchy of attention and where a memory of something you experienced as a toddler can be as vivid as the events of yesterday in your mind.

When I watched The Reason I Jump in early 2020, I was instantly moved to tears and, once the sobbing subsided, I began to write a glowing review for RAR's CPHDOX coverage. In the course of writing about it, I discovered that the authenticity of the film's source material was hotly contested online.

Skepticism around whether Higashida could author such a book originates from the misconception that The Reason I Jump was written through Facilitated Communication - a controversial technique involving physical support of the arm, opening up the possibility that a facilitator could unconsciously influence statements by nonspeakers by guiding their arm towards certain letters on a letterboard.

As this footage from the NHK documentary What You Taught Me About My Son shows, Naoki does not use Facilitated Communication and writes independently. But initially, before I’d researched further, I was mortified to find, (if Wikipedia is to be believed), that the book could potentially be a forgery by Higashida's mother or a highly embellished translation of the Japanese text. I felt compelled to reach out to the director to get his take on it and to restore my faith in the authenticity of Naoki’s words.

The following interview is a transcript of a Zoom discussion we had around authorship and methods of representing a neurodiverse experience in sound and vision.

(Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article do not reflect the views of the Radical Art Review or its editorial staff)

A still from the 2020 film 'The Reason I Jump' directed by Jerry Rothwell
(Still: 'The Reason I Jump' (dir. Jerry Rothwell; 2020)

Hi Jerry. Thanks so much for taking time to speak to the Radical Art Review about your new film. The Reason I Jump must have been quite daunting as a book-to-film adaptation. How on earth do you take a book structured like a bullet-pointed FAQ and build that up into a feature film structure? It can’t be the most straightforward of jobs?

[The book’s 58 chapters all have titles like “Why can’t you sit still?” or “Why do you ask the same questions over and over?” with each of Naoki’s responses to each question taking 1-2 pages.]