Fall Down 7 Times Get Up 8 review – a window on the world of autism

Naoki Higashida’s lyrical and heartfelt account of his condition is a gift to anyone involved with the same challenges

Naoki Higashida is a 24-year-old man with severe, largely non-verbal autism. Though he cannot hold a conversation, he uses an alphabet grid to build up sentences, which are taken down by a transcriber. By this method he produced his first book, The Reason I Jump, when he was only 13. It quickly became an autism classic.

My two eldest sons, George and Sam, have autism. Sam is the same age as Higashida, and similar in many ways. When I read The Reason I Jump, I felt as if Sam was speaking to me fully for the first time – or for the first time since early childhood, when he would try earnestly to make himself understood before withdrawing, defeated. Would reading its successor be as valuable and powerful an experience?

The answer, overall, is yes. The new book lacks, perhaps, the startling novelty of its predecessor; the fresh originality of young adolescence has been replaced by the clear, gentle voice of a very nice and thoughtful young man. But there is much to be learned from it about this mysterious condition that Higashida regards as both a blessing and a curse.

The book’s single most important function is to drum into the sometimes thick heads of us neurotypical readers that people with autism experience a genuine and usually insuperable disconnection between what they want to say or do and what their brain allows them. Higashida wants to laugh along with other people, to exchange greetings, to say “thank you”, but his mind “tends to go blank whenever I try to speak”. His brain “has this habit of getting lost inside things”; he blurts out remembered phrases as if hitting “a replay button I have no control over”.

This lack of control is one of the most painful aspects of his autism. His mother asks him if he wants his gloves; “I replied ‘gloves’ straight off even though, in truth, I didn’t want the gloves.” Gloves was the last word he heard, and “latterly heard words stick best to my memory”. At worst, “when I fight the demands of my fixations, and when my urge to do what my fixation dictates and my determination to ignore it smash into each other, I can erupt into anger”. A meltdown follows: “I want to take control of the situation, but my brain won’t let me… My rage is directed at my brain, so… I start punching my own head.” Head-punching and other forms of self-harm are common autistic traits, much more so among the non-verbal. Higashida’s explanation makes perfect sense.

Autism prevents him from seeking help, and makes him unable to accept intervention, however well intentioned. “If I’m agitated… please let me work through it… nothing you say is going to get through to me. Please be calm and even-tempered even when I’m mid-meltdown, and don’t try to talk me out of it.” Reprimands delivered mid-meltdown are worse than useless, they can even become “tangled up with my anger” and create “a new verbal fixation. Your words will then stir me up even more.” Advice like this is of incalculable value to the bewildered parent, teacher or carer.

Higashida has progressed since the days of The Reason I Jump. There are losses as well as gains: “I feel less connected to nature… however, I’ve grown fonder of myself.” As a child, he hated himself so much “that I didn’t want anyone else even to see me… I yearned to vanish from the world.”

He used to run away, as did Sam. Calling out police helicopters was a regular event during Sam’s childhood. It never crossed my mind that self-hatred could be behind his disappearances; I wouldn’t have credited him with such a level of awareness, but Higashida’s writing opens my mind to all sorts of possibilities for interpreting the behaviour of both my sons.

Life is still challenging, but Higashida no longer wants to vanish. “I only reached a place where I’m OK with being seen when I was able, finally, to accept my disability.” Perhaps achieving this acceptance explains why so many autistic people, George and Sam included, become much calmer and easier to live with as they get older. Higashida can’t imagine losing his autism, and doesn’t relish the as yet entirely theoretical idea of a “cure”; “How would you feel if you were obliged to undergo medical treatment for the sole reason that the person you are is an inconvenience? To live a life where I feel blessed to have autism: that will be my goal from now on.”

As with The Reason I Jump, Fall Down 7 Times Get Up 8 is translated by the novelist David Mitchell and his wife KA Yoshida, themselves parents of an autistic son. Some readers will question its authenticity; how could such lucid prose, such a flexible vocabulary, be commanded by someone who cannot talk, and whose reading consists mainly of the picture books of his childhood? Moreover, a defining characteristic of autism is held to be lack of empathy, yet Higashida shows a delicate regard for the difficulties his condition creates – “I encroach upon other people’s comfort zones, yet I remain acutely sensitive about my own” – and is adept at explaining his experiences in language that makes sense to neurotypicals – “I try to ensure my autism-influenced senses don’t take my sentences too far from the reader’s experience”.

Lacking any insider information, I choose to believe in it. We accept that some non-verbal autists can produce astonishingly intricate drawings or play classical music beautifully, so why should a facility for language not also be possible? Higashida points out that neurotypicals “say whatever comes into their heads, unfiltered” in front of autists, wrongly assuming that because they don’t react, they can’t understand or aren’t listening. Higashida has many years’ experience of nonreactive observation to draw on for his observations about human behaviour.

Besides, there’s something gloriously autistic about Higashida’s writing. He isn’t a neurotypical trapped by wordlessness. His sensibility is “other”. His overwhelming reactions to a rusty umbrella fastening, sticking plasters, a cartoon kitten; his inability to interpret the sound of rain as meaning that it is actually raining; his limited awareness of the wider lives of the people he’s fond of – all this would be hard to fake.

I don’t think that all non-verbals are as gifted as he is; parents shouldn’t feel tortured by their failure to release a hypothetical hidden talent. Rather, we should look with gratitude through the porthole he has cleared on to a submerged world: “Spoken language is a blue sea. Everyone else is swimming, diving and frolicking freely, while I’m alone, stuck in a tiny boat, swayed from side to side. Rushing towards me are waves of sound… When I’m working on my alphabet grid or my computer, I feel as if someone’s cast a magic spell and turned me into a dolphin.”

• Fall Down 7 Times Get Up 8 by Naoki Higashida is published by Sceptre (£14.99). To order a copy for £11.24 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99


Charlotte Moore

The GuardianTramp

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