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The Reason I Jump is in cinemas from 18 June.

The book The Reason I Jump, which was the springboard for this new film by Grierson Award-winning director Jerry Rothwell, was originally written by Higashida Naoki, a nonspeaking autistic teen. Higashida describes his thoughts and perceptions with a vividness and expressiveness that defy common assumptions about the developmental disability, which is estimated to affect one in 270 people worldwide.

First published in Japan in 2007, the book gained popularity in the West after being released in an English translation by David Mitchell – author of Cloud Atlas, 2004 – and his wife Yoshida Keiko, themselves the parents of an autistic son. Though some reviewers and psychologists have questioned the methods behind it and challenged its authenticity, the book has nevertheless added impetus to a wider challenge to notions that have long caused the stigmatisation of the neurodivergent, including misconceptions about their emotional and imaginative capacities. In one of his comments in Rothwell’s film, Mitchell has a frank explanation for that ugly history: “Neurotypicals are rubbish at understanding anything that is not neurotypical.”

While Mitchell’s point may be a harsh one, that limitation applies to some of this documentary’s otherwise well-intentioned attempts to immerse its largely neurotypical viewership in the inner worlds of five non-verbal autistic individuals. In the case of Amrit, a young woman in Noida, India, the director isolates objects within the frame in close focus while blurring out the rest to simulate the nature of her visual perception, which she herself conveys in her remarkable artworks. For Joss, a young man in the English coastal town of Broadstairs, the film demonstrates his keen ear for green electricity feeder pillars by layering their distinctive electric hums into a dense soundscape.

The Reason I Jump (2020)

Whether such tactics really put viewers inside these subjects’ minds may be impossible to know given the communication gulf that can exist for Rothwell’s non-verbal subjects. That may be why his film’s most expressionistic sequences are not as affecting as less flashy scenes featuring two other subjects – Ben and Emma, two friends in Arlington, Virginia – reflecting on their close bond and showing off their knowledge of Juan and Eva Perón with the help of a digital device and their therapist’s letter chart.

Equally moving is the film’s portrayal of the love and dedication shown by these subjects’ families, who share the hope that the world will learn to regard their children with the empathy they deserve. Another gulf – that of the availability of resources and supports depending on where these families are in the world – is highlighted by the story of the parents of Jestina in Sierra Leone and their founding of their area’s first school for the autistic, part of their ongoing efforts to change the attitudes of neighbours who may perceive the challenging behaviour of an autistic child as evidence of demonic possession.

It is arguable that Rothwell’s efforts to create sensory replicas of his subjects’ experiences replace one faulty representation with another; even if that’s so, his film is still a valuable and compelling addition to the growing canon of features and documentaries on the subject because of the ways it prioritises the perspectives of autistic individuals and their families. Indeed, the most thoughtful words here belong to Ben: “I think we can change the conversation around autism by being part of the conversation.”

Further reading

A Space in Time explores parental bonds and societal stigmas in a family living with disabilities

By Carmen Gray

A Space in Time explores parental bonds and societal stigmas in a family living with disabilities

Better caring through documentary?

By Sophie Brown

Better caring through documentary?

Roger Ross Williams on making Life, Animated

Roger Ross Williams on making Life, Animated

Sight and Sound September 2022

In this issue: Quentin Tarantino on tape, the best film podcasts, Baz Luhrmann on Elvis, Warren Ellis on composing for film and Panah Panahi on Hit the Road. Plus: Black Film Bulletin, James Caan, Georges Méliès and more.

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