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5 Questions with "The Reason I Jump" Translator David Mitchell

October 15, 2013

Since it was released, author David Mitchell’s translation of “The Reason I Jump” has landed on Amazon.com's best sellers list and received a rave review from “The Daily Show” host Jon Stewart. The book is a translation of a memoir originally published in 2007 and written by then-13-year-old Naoki Higashida -- a Japanese teen on the autism spectrum. Mitchell and his wife KA Yoshida, who have a son with autism, translated the text into English. Mitchell also provided the book's introduction.

The following are five questions posed to the author about his passion project. 

Why was it important for you to bring “The Reason I Jump” to English-speaking audiences?

Very simply, we found the book enormously helpful in our struggle to understand our son, his potential, and how best to help him realize that potential. We figured we couldn't be the only ones for whom THE REASON I JUMP could be helpful, but Anglo-Japanese partnerships with an autistic offspring and heavyweight contacts in publishing aren't that common. If we didn't translate it, who would?

How did reading and translating the book change the way you think about autism; especially in your relationship with your son?

It showed me I was guilty of underestimating my son's potential. Ashamed as I am now to admit it, I had been thinking of his brain as a malfunctioning one, and not as a differently-wired one. Sure, this different wiring throws up a hell of a lot of day-to-day challenges and difficulties, and the odd crisis even, but I now understand there is intelligence and imagination and playfulness and philosophical enquiry and even a spiritual thirst behind the speechlessness of autism. I can believe that last sentence not because I want it to be true, but because Naoki proves it is true - he has autism, he has great difficulty in conversing, but here he is exhibiting these traits and writing about them. My expectations for my son are now higher, expectations grounded not in snake-oil optimism but in everyday experience. And of course, my son responds to these raised expectations positively - all kids do. We're also working with his tutor and school to help him learn how to type 'Can I have a drink please?' as well as say it. You never know - maybe he will be able to express himself through a keyboard, too.

What surprised you the most about “The Reason I Jump?”

Lots of things. Naoki's utter lack of self-pity, for one. The way he's mortified by the problems he causes for the people around him. That's empathy, which people with autism are supposed to be incapable of,  right?  His level of analysis. The way we muddle up the causes with the symptoms of autism. The way that a lot of the difficulties faced by people with autism arise not from autism itself but from the myths, misperceptions and ignorance about autism in society at large.

What is the most important piece of advice the book conveys to people who care for children with autism?

There are days when it's bloody hard for all of us, for the carers, for the people with autism, but let's soldier on, indefatigably, because it's really worth the effort, even on those days when you think you're going backwards. These children are capable of much much more than they are generally given credit for. Expose them to language, especially non-verbal kids, even language you strongly suspect makes no sense to them - just do it anyway, like a gentle friendly radio commentator who won't shut up. They want to learn. Look for tiny victories. They can be built upon. We need a revolution in the way autism is thought about and the way people with autism can be helped and integrated. With timely and wise help, we can turn a lot of these kids into future taxpayers. (Well, okay, the last bit isn't really advice from the book, it's just me banging on, but it's a logical extension of the book.)

After the promotion for this book wraps, what project is next on the horizon?

 I have a big hairy novel I badly need to finish. My editors are already being unreasonably kind and patient.