Naoki Higashida was 13 when he wrote this book, a young Japanese boy with autism. Using a complicated (to my eyes) grid with Japanese characters he pointed to each one in order to indicate what he wanted to write. His focus is to explain autism from the inside, in order to let the rest of us – and presumably, most of all – those who have a child with autism, a sibling with autism, who teach children with autism – understand the supreme mismatch between what those of us who are not autistic see and mis-interpret and what people with autism feel.
I came to this book because I am a great admirer of David Mitchell’s writing, and thought initially this was a book BY Mitchell, before discovering it is a book translated by Mitchell and his wife, Keiko Yoshida, and with a foreword by Mitchell, in which, with typical intensity and precision, he guides the reader into an imaginative exercise to try to help us make the jump into an inside experience of autism. And yes, I found it bewildering and terrifying, which is rather the point Mitchell wants us to realise, before Naoki Higashida eloquently explains the rich, profound, tender complexity of his interior world.
What Mitchell’s foreword also reveals, again with the empathetic, compassionate humanity which is a hallmark of his writing, is that there is a back-story to this translation by Yoshida and Mitchell – they are the parents of an boy with autism.
Mitchell himself invites the reader to feel humbled by Higashida – as the translator has been humbled – by being given a real understanding of how the autistic person really is, with an inner which may be even more vastly dissimilar from what the outsider SEES, than most of our structured `masks’ of who we ‘normals’ are, have dissimilarity from the inner core and rich complexity of each of ‘us’.
The greatest myth we all believe about those with autism, is that they cannot feel or empathise with what `us normals’ feel, and that they lack compassion. However, this 13 year old boy, who explains that he is speaking for others also, who are diagnosed as `autistic’ shocked and humbled me by a profound and tender compassion FOR US, and for the world itself, particularly the natural world, that goes way beyond my own compassionate empathy.
One of the biggest misunderstandings you have about us is your belief that our feelings aren’t as subtle and complex as yours. Because how we behave can appear so childish in your eyes, you tend to assume that we’re childish on the inside too. But of course we experience the same emotions that you do
What is crystal clear, in this beautifully, gently explained book, is that we have failed to understand that it is not empathy that autistic people lack, it is the knowledge of the approved social forms and rituals to express this. We have (well, I have) mistaken the lack of external expression for a lack of internal feeling.
I have only briefly encountered autism, when working many years ago with a child. I am pleased to see that some of my `instinctive’ feelings about how to be with that child were right, but, oh, I missed so much.
Higashida who says he wants to be a writer (Mitchell, truthfully, in his foreword, says – actually, he already IS one) – uses short questions as chapter headings, with the chapter content as answers. The questions are common ones which the non-autistic might have on observing the behaviours associated with autism, for example “Why do you ask the same questions over and over” “Why do you move your arms and legs about in that awkward way”. Over and over again the insistent, but gentle plea is re-iterated by Higashida – stay with us, don’t give up on us. Interspersed with the Q and A chapters are metaphorical stories, often to do with the natural world, and what might be called, philosophical and ethically inspired soulfulness.
In truth, I was left with a sense that this young boy demonstrated a far better and more compassionate understanding of the nature of true empathy than I have. He is just unable to outwardly show it in a way which I, and others like me, might understand.
The book is completed with beautiful nature inspired illustrations, metaphors and abstract impressions, often using shapes and designs rather than realistic objects, to visually express a sense of the interior world. These are by “Kai and Sunny” illustrators whose work is included in the V + A’s print archive collection, who have collaborated with Alexander McQueen and whose designs feature on the covers of several of Mitchell’s books .
But to us people with special needs, nature is as important as our own lives. The reason is that when we look at nature, we receive a sort of permission to be alive in this world
I strongly recommend this deceptively simple, plainly written book