How this writer with autism changed the way novelist David Mitchell sees his own son
For novelist David Mitchell, reading the words of Naoki Higashida was a life-changing experience.
Higashida is a young Japanese man with autism. For the most part, he cannot speak. But he can write by pointing at an alphabet grid.
Mitchell did more than just read The Reason I Jump. He and his wife reached out to Higashida. They helped translate the book from Japanese into English and it became an international bestseller.
Now, the pair have collaborated with Higashida again to publish a second book. It's called Fall Down 7 Times Get Up 8: A Young Man's Voice From The Silence Of Autism.
How reading Naoki Higashida's words was a revelation for David Mitchell
"When I first read it, our son — who has autism and who is, like Naoki, also non-verbal — was about 3 or 4 years old. It was a very tough time. He was prone to fairly regular meltdowns and episodes of self-harm which I won't get too much into. But it was hard and distressing. And I simply had no idea what was going on inside his head. It seemed not many other people did either. There were books I already had, but they were written by neurotypical academics, or sometimes by the mothers of kids with autism, and these were helpful up to a point. But I had no way of really being sure that what they were describing was, a) what was going on inside the head of kids like my son who have non-verbal autism, and b) if it wasn't sort of just their best guess."
How Naoki's writings helped challenged David Mitchell's own assumptions about autism
"It upended many of the ... sort of inherited pieces of wisdom that I thought I knew about autism. For example, that people with autism can't emote, or that they don't have emotions, or they can't imagine that they're inside the head of someone else. And also, that they don't have imaginations, or don't aspire to other areas of life more than a day-to-day survival. Naoki, even when he was writing as a 13-year-old ... seemed, internally, to be as fully-functioning and as capable of — if not enjoying life, aspiring to enjoy life — as a neurotypical child. So this made all the difference for us."
On what it was like to meet Naoki for the first time
"It was a remarkable day — I'll never forget. It was in an upstairs conference room in a downtown Tokyo hotel. ... At that point, I'd only read what he had written as a boy. Now he was this hulking great guy, walking in aged about 20 at this point.
"I think he was quite nervous, and a little bit fazed by the idea of meeting this English-speaking white dude who has a track record of being a published author. It took about half an hour for him to be able to calm down. The first time, he walked into the room, walked around the room, and left. Then his mum pulled him back in again. So it took him a bit of time to get used to me.
"But then we sat down. He had his alphabet grid ... written on a piece of cardboard in front of him. And then I asked him a question in less-than-great Japanese. ... And then he began to focus. Of course he can't speak. He makes quite a lot of noise, he says words that come into his head as non-verbal people with autism do. Then, he sat down and answered my first question in increasingly fluent, adult, sophisticated Japanese. And that was quite remarkable. That was kind of magic."
On what life is like for Naoki, as told through his eyes
"There's [a story] quite early on in the book where he describes the stages he needs to go through in order to realize that it is raining. For us, we see the rain hit the window, and we just think, it's raining. We think it before we've even become aware that we are thinking it. Naoki needs about eight stages involving hearing the noise, consulting similar memories where he has also heard this strange noise against the window, and matching it up and thinking back to what was on the weather report that morning. And then, at the end, realizing that his mum said 'Oh, the washing' and run out of the room to get the laundry in. That was fascinating for me."
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. To hear more from author David Mitchell, listen to the audio above.
Fall Down 7 Times Get Up 8 is published by Knopf Canada.