“When you see an object, it seems that you see it as an entire thing first, and only afterwards do its details follow on. But for people with autism, the details jump straight out at us first of all, and then only gradually, detail by detail, does the whole image float up into focus.”
― Naoki Higashida, The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism
Los Angeles, CA, Jan. 5 – How do you see the world? Do you enjoy the beautiful small details of a flower or the sweet melodious sound of birds chirping? Do you find the sound of rain calming? What if all those details that we love started to slam into our minds in disruptive and disturbing ways? Would you still love them? For the neurotypical, our brains are designed to block out specific details of our environment for various reasons. But what if we couldn’t? Even still, what if you did always love them but couldn’t verbally express your appreciation? How emotionally taxing would your world be if everything you sensed was amplified and you had no way to express yourself verbally?
This is the world filmmaker Jerry Rothwell asks us to enter in the documentary film The Reason I Jump. Based on Naoki Higashida’s book, Rothwell creates an immersive cinematic experience that gives the audience a glimpse into the mind space of those with non-verbal autism. The film follows five young people living with non-verbal autism as they go throughout their daily lives. We get to experience their world in scenes overlaid with narration from Higashida’s book. There’s Amrit, an artist, who uses art to express what her words cannot. Joss, a teenager, can see and hear everything in an almost Superman-like way. Ben and Emma, two best friends, are badass Hockey players who use letter boards to express the depths of their emotions growing as adults with autism. Jestina, together with her parents, has helped others with autism living in their community, gain access to schooling. The documentary also includes interviews with their parents.
In an interview regarding his filmmaking process, Rothwell explains he wanted to shift the film as much as possible into a non-neurotypical experience. It takes the viewer into a world where they are bombarded with sensory impulses, sounds and images, which shows how intensely beautiful and disturbing the world can become to a person living with autism. What emerges is a breathtaking film. Powerful imagery and Rothwell’s use of 360 degree sound, partnered with Higashida’s poetic detailing of his experience, give us a dive into a space that feels more art installation than documentary. I wanted to play in this world. I wanted to explore it, dance through it, and bounce off its walls. And yet, that isn’t the beauty of the film. There were times when this film was too loud – even boisterous laughter seemed startling and harsh – and I had the urge to turn it down and make it more comfortable for myself. And that’s the point. There is no volume control, no ability to turn this world down for those who live here 24/7. This isn’t a film designed to create a fun, safe space for the neurotypical to trapeze through the mind of the autistic. No, this film was made to break down walls that separate us so there can be real understanding and empathy of the experience of living with autism.
Like the parents featured, I came away from this film feeling like I’d been given a rare opportunity to hear from those who often are seen but never fully understood. Higashida’s words explain: “Just because I can’t speak, doesn’t mean I can’t feel. I am a human with a deep well of emotions and experiences, and I yearn to communicate just as much as you do. My hope is this film reaches a broader audience to learn to embrace all members of our world and allow them to communicate to us in whatever way they desire.”
The Reason I Jump, which won the 2020 Sundance Film Festival World Documentary Audience Award, open in virtual cinemas nationwide on Friday, January 8.
ReelAbilities Film Festival: New York will be hosting a Q&A on Jan. 8 at 1:00 p.m. ET. For tickets, click here. Streaming will be available from Jan. 8 – 22. Pre-order the film here. To watch this film with audio description, please email [email protected].