A young Japanese man’s searching account of autism, following The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism (2013).
Higashida, now 24, lives in silence. He cannot speak, but though his condition is of a kind categorized as both nonverbal and severe, he has learned to communicate by way of a keyboard that renders hiragana characters out of Roman letters. As co-translator Mitchell, a noted English novelist whose own son is autistic, writes, it is an arduous way of communicating. He adds, “Naoki’s autism bombards him with distractions and prompts him to get up mid-sentence, pace the room and gaze out the window.” That we have this illuminating book at all is a testament of his extraordinary effort, but there is little by way of self-pity to mark it. Higashida writes with confidence about his many interests, including nature and mathematics, and “the immutable beauties of autism,” and he reckons himself lucky to be wired as he is. People with his condition, he writes, do not seek pity from outsiders, either, but instead the chance to live outside the confines of shunted-off institutions and as independently as possible. “Yes,” he writes, “the neurotypical majority might be more productive than us, but we, too, want to embrace life and be of use to others as best we can.” What people with special needs want and require more than anything else is the same search for meaning that any other person of free will conducts. In a mix of short essays—including the opener, a lovely thank-you note to a mother to whom he has never spoken—Higashida explores aspects of his atypicality, most of it pointing to the fact that he is indeed atypical, indeed unlike most other people, in the depth of his emotional and intellectual strength.
Autism is a mysterious neurological condition. While the science is incomplete, Higashida gives us a thoughtful view of the art of living well in its shadow.