The cinematic language of The Reason I Jump, an ambitious documentary which attempts to simulate the sensory experience of non-verbal autism, is elemental, building up one isolated detail at a time. A living room, for example, emerges from the cascading, metallic tide of an electric fan, from the frisson of sizzling oil in a frying pan, from the wafting glow of sunlight refracted through a plastic water bottle. The scene is an act of double translation: Naoki Higashida’s book of the same name, written when he was 13 years old to map his experience of non-verbal autism, reimagined by film-maker Jerry Rothwell into a cinematic approximation of autistic perception – the sensory overwhelm, the hyper-intensity of details, the destabilizing fluidity of memory – for a neuro-typical audience.

The intention of The Reason I Jump, as both a book (originally published in Japanese in 2007 and translated into English six years later by a team including the Cloud Atlas novelist David Mitchell) and a film (which won an audience award at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival) is explicitly didactic, a missive to explain one person’s neuro-divergent experience and a broader call to expand one’s imagination of human cognition. “My big hope is that by writing this book, I can explain in my own way what goes on in my mind,” wrote Higashida, his words recited in voiceover by Jordan O’Donegan as a young Japanese-British child (Jim Fujiwara) runs through a field.

Between a quarter to half of people with autism spectrum disorder experience some limitation of spoken language, from fully non-verbal to utterances. Rothwell’s film, with the help of sound designer Nick Ryan and cinematographer Ruben Woodin Dechamps, ambitiously transmutes Higashida’s words into an evocative, conscientious portal into a world without speech, through the daily experience of five people with non-verbal autism.

Mitchell, also the film’s co-screenwriter and father to a son who is on the spectrum, describes Higashida’s writing in the film as “cartography” for a neural experience he has witnessed but struggled to understand. The book “turned on its head, really, a lot of understanding about non-speaking autism that has grown up over the last few decades”, Rothwell said. “The idea that Naoki doesn’t possess a theory of mind is pretty blown out of the water.” A project seven years in the making, Rothwell first envisioned focusing the film on Higashida, whom he met at the author’s home in Japan. But the writer did not want to appear on-screen, leading Rothwell to connect Higashida’s words to the lives of five different non-verbal autistic people in four different countries. “How do these words that this 12-year-old in a Tokyo suburb has written, how do they relate to other non-speaking autistic people around the world?” he wondered. “Can they help immerse us in different people’s lives?”

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