Review of book on Autism : The Economist: Fall Down 7 Times Get Up 8.By Naoki Higashida.Random House; 206 pages;


August 21, 2017 Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Google+ Book Reviews



In 1995 Temple Grandin, a well-known animal scientist who designs livestock-holding equipment in America, brought out a memoir about just how baffling it can be to live with autism; she has Asperger’s, but was not formally diagnosed until she was in her 40s. For autistic people, she once said, decoding social nuances can feel like being “an anthropologist on Mars”.

Parents can feel just as ill-equipped when interpreting the symptoms of an autistic child. These range from social awkwardness to repetitive acts like banging one’s head. At least a quarter of these children cannot speak. Inevitably, their families can find them hard to understand. Ms Grandin’s “Thinking in Pictures” was part of a new genre of “autie-biographies”. The latest is from Japan.

A few years ago, in search of insight into their non-verbal son’s own “chaotic swirl”, David Mitchell, a gifted British novelist, and his wife, Keiko Yoshida, unearthed a little-known book by a Japanese boy called Naoki Higashida. They translated the text for their son’s carers, and later showed it to Mr Mitchell’s publisher. “The Reason I Jump”, which came out in 2007, was eventually translated into over 30 languages. Mr Higashida, then 13, became internationally famous and is now probably the most widely read Japanese author after Haruki Murakami.

Using an alphabet grid and a transcriber, Mr Higashida explained the hidden frustrations of his condition. Commanding his body to move is like “remote-controlling a faulty robot”. He also exposed the depths of his emotions, admitting that a large statue of Buddha once moved him to tears. To many, these glimpses were a revelation; lack of speech clearly does not amount to mental incapacity.

Mr Higashida’s latest book, “Fall Down 7 Times Get Up 8”, provides a similar guide to the “immutable beauties” of the autistic mind. Now in his 20s, the author offers a wider perspective on life with a disorder. The title alludes to a Japanese proverb about persistence. The book is a gospel in praise of grit, not just for autistic people but for wider society. Do not give up on us, he urges parents and helpers. “The person with special needs will sense that resignation, lose their motivation and stop trying to speak.” He even goes as far as to say that a carer’s lack of grit can erode an autistic person’s “will to live”.

“Fall Down 7 Times Get up 8” also reveals the inherent sadness of a life without words. Mr Higashida is unable even to say “thank you” to his own mother. Non-verbal people with autism “are probably the loneliest souls of all,” he says. That loneliness could be eased if the rest of the world had more patience. “The failure of people with autism to communicate doesn’t stem from inner self-imprisonment: it stems from a failure of others to see that we are open and receptive.” A lack of imagination for what autistic people can achieve ultimately holds them back.

The book rightfully challenges the methods and attitudes that prevail in supporting people with autism. It is rich in metaphor, something Mr Mitchell was once told was beyond autistic people. As Mr Higashida himself writes: “Weeds like dandelions which you can find all over the world and which nobody really gives a second glance to…are the happiest.” “Fall Down 7 Times Get Up 8” should be read by many beyond the circle of parents seeking to understand their child. It places Mr Higashida among the first rank of gifted writers, not just writers with autism.