When thinking of autism and the media, a few examples probably come to mind: The Good Doctor, Atypical, The Big Bang Theory. While those representations make for good entertainment, they all portray the same recycled stereotypes of socially awkward geniuses. The types of autistic people that the general public doesn’t often see in the media are the high-support needs people, which are nonspeakers or those who need one-to-one care. And when they are in the media, they are portrayed like monsters in documentaries such as Sounding the Alarm or having their private moments exposed on various YouTube channels. A new film that breaks the mold of all autistic representations that came before it is finally here, and that is The Reason I Jump.
Based on the book of the same name written by Japanese 13-year-old nonspeaker Naoki Higashida (translated into English by David Mitchell), this documentary tells the story of five high-support needs autistic people. Each person’s autistic traits manifest in different ways, as well as being from a different part of the world, breaking yet another stereotype of autistic people often being portrayed as American white males. The Reason I Jump is a pioneering film of the Neurodiversity Movement, which declares that “people with brain-based disabilities (like autism, intellectual disabilities, learning disabilities, or mental health disabilities) should be accepted and included in society just like neurotypical people (people without brain-based disabilities),” according to The Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN). Neurodiversity can also be applied to Down’s syndrome, schizophrenia, ADHD, dyslexia, Tourette’s syndrome, and other conditions.
The film’s narration is taken from quotes by Higashida himself, although he is not present in the film. “When I was small, I didn’t even know that I was a kid with ‘special needs,’” the narrator begins. “How did I find out? By other people telling me that I was different from everyone else, and that this was a problem.” That opening line perfectly sums up the experience of growing up autistic, as what seems abnormal to neurotypical people is completely normal within the minds of autistic people. There are reasons why autistic people think and act the way they do, as they are wired differently than the rest of the population. That doesn’t mean that their way of thinking is “wrong” or “defective.” It’s simply different.
The first of the film’s subjects is Amrit, who lives in Noida, India with her mother, Aarti. Like any parent of an autistic child, Aarti feels guilty because of how Amrit is bullied and misunderstood. She explains how Amrit wants to make friends, but her peers don’t know how to be friendly with her. This problem is all too common, as autistic people generally seek friendship and companionship, but because neurotypical people are not properly taught to understand how autistics see the world differently, both groups are regularly divided rather than peacefully coexisting. She also communicates what goes on throughout her day through art, showing that there are other valid means of communication aside from words.
Joss, whose parents are producers for the film, is the only autistic in the film with full speech, despite needing one-to-one care. He has a fascination with green electric boxes, which his parents take him to see as part of his routine. Autistic people can be easily fascinated by things that many people tend to ignore (the main boy in the film, Loving Lampposts, is another great example of this), and letting your child have regular access to those things can be a great way to help them stay happy and regulated, as Joss is. There comes a moment where the film displays a meltdown he has via audio, which they don’t show on video. Instead, the camera shakes violently, demonstrating how distressing a meltdown can be without exposing him during a private moment.
In Arlington, Virginia, Ben & Emma have minimal speech, but use a letterboard to communicate. Higashida actually used a letterboard to communicate his ideas, which were then written for the book. Ben is a board member of ASAN, proving that even nonspeakers are capable of being a part of the conversation around autism policy if given the proper accommodations and supports. He also communicates through his letterboard that autistic people are denied their civil rights, which is an issue that the autistic community is fighting for daily through their advocacy.
Jestina is the last of the subjects of the film, who is from Sierra Leone. Because of the culture where she lives, she and her family are ostracized by the entire community, viewing her as a “devil child.” Her father also explains that parents with high-support needs autistic children are pressured to abandon them and leave them to die, rather than welcome and accept the child for who they are. Jestina’s tale reminds viewers that in order for a culture to progress, people who differ from the norm need to be treated as human beings, not as monsters. Such discrimination is not exclusive to Sierra Leone, however, as even an awful neighbor in Ontario sent a letter to a mother of an autistic son, urging them to either move away or kill her son. In both third-world countries and first-world ones, cultures have a long way to go in embracing autistic culture and valuing them as equals to the rest of society.
The Reason I Jump breaks new ground by displaying high-support needs autistic people as what they really are: human beings. Instead of casting them as burdens on their families, the film is exceptional in that it illuminates both their struggles and their triumphs, while acknowledging their humanity. Seeing as autistic advocate Emma Dalmayne, CEO of Autistic Inclusive Meets (AIM), served as a consultant on the film, autistic people were involved in the production. That too is incredibly rare in the film industry today. What is the reason Higashida jumps? The film will solve that very question, as well as many others that non-autistic people have wanted to know the answers for. The film opens in theaters on January 8.