It’s likely that you’ve never read anything by Naoki Higashida. His is a new voice, an entirely unique one, and I can say that without fear of reprisal. Higashida is a 13-year-old Japanese boy who suffers from autism.
This book has been translated by David Mitchell (remember Cloud Atlas?) and KA Yoshida, parents themselves of a child with autism. Autism is a very personal and still very mysterious disorder that is growing in prevalence in our worldwide population. It does not present the same way in all its sufferers, in fact diagnosis and even the definition of this disorder is in constant flux. Wouldn’t it be more helpful to know what it is like from the inside? Especially for a child?
Higashida can tell us, from a literate child’s perspective. He lets us know that autism sufferers have a rich emotional life, but a tortuous physical existence. For him, this means that he constantly wrestles with his inability to comply with the social demands put on him. He confesses to despair over his situation: "It's as if my whole body, except for my soul, feels as if it belongs to somebody else and I have zero control over it. I don't think you could ever imagine what an agonizing sensation this is." And this is 100% of every waking moment for him.
The book is mostly set up into a series of questions and answers, posed by occasionally rude but unknown “normal” people, questions like “why don’t you do what you’re told right away” or “why do you speak in that peculiar way”. Higashida is patient and eloquent with each query, and often quite poetical in his responses.
My favourite response is to the question: “why do you ask the same questions over and over.” Higashida's reply is beautiful: "...I do understand things, but my way of remembering them works differently than everyone else's. I imagine a normal person's memory is arranged continuously, like a line. My memory, however, is more like a pool of dots. I'm always 'picking up' these dots--by asking my questions--so I can arrive back at the memory that the dots represent."
Higashida confirms that training and practice are essential to his success and repeatedly asks for patience and forbearance from those who care for him: "[w]hen we sense you've given up on us, it makes us feel miserable. So please keep helping us, through to the end."
Learning to communicate (painstakingly, with the help of his mother) via keyboard has been a godsend for Higashida. In his own words: "[o]ften, while I was learning this method, I'd feel utterly beaten...[w]hat kept me hammering away at it was the thought that to live my life as a human being, nothing is more important than being able to express myself." I agree.
At only 135 pages, this is a book worth your time to read. Be enlightened and don't ask the rude questions!