“The Reason I Jump” – Because I must [MOVIE REVIEW]

Jestina in “The Reason I Jump.” Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber.

by Neely Swanson

“The Reason I Jump,” the compassionate documentary by Jerry Rothwell, is a surprising look at the autism spectrum. Put aside your preconceptions. This is not about Asperger’s, that garbage category that seems to include all your friends and relatives who have difficulty in social situations, lack empathy, and/or eye contact. This is about those children who disturb you; the ones with flailing arms, wild eyes, screams and unintelligible utterances; the ones who cause you to turn away, and sometimes run away. They are precisely the ones we need to look at.

There is more to see than meets that wandering eye. Patience is never enough but empathy can go a long way in understanding the rough, never ending journey that is the life of the afflicted and that of their parents.

Rothwell was inspired to go on that journey by the surprising best seller, The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida. Higashida, a nonspeaking autistic boy from Japan, kept a detailed journal that was turned into a book when he was 13. It was extraordinary because it revealed that this boy, without the gift of spoken language, had the written skills to clearly and elegantly express his inner thoughts and insight into why he acts the way he does.

The assumption that being non-verbal is the same as lacking language and the ability to communicate can be blatantly incorrect. The absence of verbal expression is often mistaken for subnormal intelligence and results in an education that falls far below the level required for the introduction of knowledge and living skills. In a previous era, this is precisely what happened to the profoundly deaf. The squeals, the flailing motions, the unintelligibility led the general population to categorize them as behaviorally and intellectually impaired. What they lacked was the means to communicate and when they were given it, primarily through sign language, the tantrums, the flailing, the frustration with being unable to get their needs understood, largely subsided. Consider your feelings when you see a group of young people signing in public or you watch an interpreter on stage signing a speech or a play. There has been a major change in the way we view their world.

This is what “The Reason I Jump” tries to convey. Pack away your assumptions and your eyes to alternative worlds; the ones in which you do not live.

Following several teens through their daily existence and the eyes of their parents, we begin to see their world in a different light. As explained in Higashida’s book, as well as in the “words” of some of these non-verbal young people, you begin to understand. Joss, the son of two of the film’s producers, has some verbal skills but little concept of space and time. Following Joss allows the viewers to see his world and his frustrations. Like many autistic individuals, he feels a heightened reality. Sounds are too loud or acute; colors are too bright. His world is one of extremes and immediacy, making it increasingly difficult to navigate. Trying for years to keep him at home, his wildly erratic behavior and increasingly violent episodes made that impossible. Joss spends much of his time in institutional care where they work on his communication skills in hopes of lessening the extremes of his behavior.

Amrit in “The Reason I Jump.” Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber.

You will get to know the young Indian girl, Amrit, who wanted nothing more than to make friends, a wish that was met with bullying and ridicule. Unable to express her feelings or describe the events of the day, she draws. Her pencils convey her thoughts and visions. Her art, beautiful, expressive, and professional has led to a solo exhibition in her town. Her language is not spoken but reveals something more about her than words ever could.

There are the two best friends, Ben and Emma who met in their pre-school program and, although both are non-verbal, have remained an unbreakable duo through their teens. It was a teacher at their school who decided to use a controversial letter board, in which expressions are related through letters punched or pointed to on the device. The two young friends were able to unlock years of thoughts using this method. It is a statement about society that until they were able to communicate their hidden language, they were thought to have limited intelligence.

And most heroic is the mother from Sierra Leone who must confront religious prejudice, superstition, and fear of her autistic daughter Jestina. When they are driven from their village, her mother is resolute in finding others like her daughter and providing them with an education, one that the authorities would deny her. She sees a beauty in her daughter and is determined to help her find her own community. Against multiple odds, she starts a school for her daughter and others like her and gets government support.

None of these individuals would fit into a category that we would consider “normal.” But perhaps our paradigm needs widening. They do not look or act like us. They do not communicate as we do. Often their movement can be erratic and repetitive. And they experience things differently. As noted early in the film, a grasp of the entire picture is sometimes limited by the autistic’s need to identify the parts before making them a whole; not seeing the flower but instead the individual elements — the stem, the petals, the thorns, the stamen — before recognizing the plant. As Naoki wrote in the book, when you and I look at a landscape, we see the mountains but we will miss the dandelion at our feet. They, like all of us, need a place to belong.

We meet heroes everywhere in this film, whether it’s the parents performing feats of inhuman patience, or the children surviving in a hostile environment. We should aspire to be more like them, not them aspire to be us.

Scientific terms are bandied around; terms like “neurotypical” and “neurodiversity.” Still, all in all, what is most convincing is that we, the “neurotypicals,” need to be more understanding and realize that there is room for empathy toward this population and the heroes who try to unlock what is inside those individuals.

We need to stop marginalizing and stigmatizing those who are different, or we are little better than the Eugenicists who categorized autistics as a group to eliminate from the population.

Now playing at The South Bay Film Society

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Written by: Neely Swanson

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