New books like 13-year-old Naoki Higashida's 'The Reason I Jump' open up the world of the autistic child, and show a way to listen with your heart
NEW DELHI :
Two of the most well-known authors to describe their struggles with autism are Temple Grandin and Daniel Tammet. By portraying their life journeys, these individuals exhibit their grit and tenacity to carve niches for themselves and make a mark on the world. Grandin, besides being one of the most vocal and notable activists for the rights of autistics, has also designed a humane and unique livestock-handling machine. In her memoir, Thinking in Pictures, Grandin illustrates how she is a visual thinker but has a hard time comprehending words. In Born on a Blue Day, Tammet illustrates his behavioural oddities like counting the number of items of clothing he is wearing before leaving home and using electronic scales to measure exactly 45g of porridge for breakfast. However, despite his difficulties, Tammet has impressive achievements to his credit, like setting the European record for reciting the digits of Pi from memory to over 22,000 places. He also has a facility for learning foreign languages.
But two new books, by and about autistics, delve into the inner worlds of children and their families as they grapple with the day-to-day challenges that autism throws their way. As a result, parents, teachers, relatives and friends can gain a deeper insight into the seemingly disconnected oddities, like poor communication skills coupled with hypersensitivity to touch, or a lack of empathy combined with savant-like skills in computation or memory. As parents shuttle children to and from an array of therapies—speech, occupational and special education classes—they often have to devise their own coping mechanisms for having a bath, boarding a plane and attending a wedding as these activities can cause strain and strife for an autistic child and her family. Some parents rise to the challenge of raising a special child with a forthright acceptance and fortitude. However, many parents are stymied, as they feel they are unable to break through the wall of autism to get through to their child.
The very fact that Higashida managed to write a book is a commendable feat, given that he cannot communicate orally. But thanks to his own grit and the perseverance of his teacher, he learnt to spell words on an alphabet grid. His book is an eye-opener even for parents. When you know that your child wants and is trying to speak to you, even though his behaviour may exhibit contrary signals, then as Mitchell writes, “you can be ten times more patient, willing, understanding and communicative".
In his book on identity and difference, Far From the Tree, author Andrew Solomon interviews parents of autistic children. His interactions attest to the heterogeneity of the condition and describe the frustrations and bewilderment of autistics and their families. For example, Cece, a 10-year-old girl, has spoken in complete sentences only four times in her life. However, each time she spoke, her words were lucid and appropriate. Her mother feels that speech for Cece is like a “traffic jam" where the thoughts don’t usually quite make it all the way to her mouth.
Solomon writes about another child, Carly Fleischmann, who seemed non-verbal until, one day at 13 years, she began typing. Naturally, her parents were astounded as they “realized inside was an articulate, intelligent, emotive person" whom they hadn’t known. Carly writes, “If I could tell people one thing about autism, it would be that I don’t want to be this way but I am. So don’t be mad. Be understanding."
Aruna Sankaranarayanan is the founder and director of Prayatna, a centre for children with learning difficulties.