My first full-length illustrated book project is also going to be my first officially published illustrations! That’s pretty incredible. I wrote all about the story and illustration process on mimochai. This post is about my thoughts and reflections on what I learned about autism through this project.
A Book For and About Autistic Kids
Sometime last Fall, Jillian (the author) reached out to me to see if I’d be interested in illustrating her children’s story. She told me she was a special needs teacher and it’d always been her dream to write a story featuring a child with autism. There aren’t many children’s books with a focus on kids with autism and she really wanted to give that to them. I was really touched by this and was very excited to work on it (on the same token, I know autism is a sensitive topic and there’s no one-size-fits-all description; we have pure intentions and did our best).
The Reason I Jump
I knew very little about autism before starting this book. I knew there were some challenges with communication and seemingly anti-social behavior, but not much about what actually goes on in their minds.
I learned a lot about autism by reading The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida. Jillian recommended this book to me when I asked her how I could learn more about the condition. Naoki is a Japanese boy with Autism and was 13 years old when he “wrote” this Q&A book. His condition was severe enough that he could not really speak, but his tutor and mother didn’t give up on him. You can read more about him and how he was able to communicate by typing through the Amazon description and reviews I’ve linked above.
Naoki writes in a manner that is at once matter-of-fact but also humorous. In fact his incredible maturity and intellect led several reviewers to question the authenticity of the book, but many have seen Naoki “speak” live and can attest to his truth.
I found myself often crying as I learned more about his internal struggles (actually I was crying within the first two questions). Autism has a huge spectrum so I hesitate to make broad characterizations of the condition, but at its core what moved me was that they are such an embodiment of our societal issues of communication, understanding, and empathy. It’s more than just about autism. It’s about how we perceive each other. We assume everyone thinks like us, so we assume we understand their actions.
But they don’t, and we don’t.
It sheds a lot of light on the perspective of an autistic kid through simple questions such as, why don’t you make eye contact when speaking? We think it’s because they are anti-social or shy, because that’s why WE would not make eye contact. But Naoki explains that it’s because they have so much sensory overload that to focus on the speaker’s face and voice at the same time makes it very difficult to understand what is being said. By focusing away from the face, they try to “see” the voice.
This is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of instances where we completely misinterpret the actions of an autistic person, because their perception of the world is so different from ours. The answers that touched me the most were more philosophical: why they don’t think it’s funny when people get hurt, why they love nature because it accepts completely and without judgment, how they appreciate the beauty in details more than we typically do, etc. Before I got to the last question, I was already starting to think they seemed a lot like a character foil to us non-special needs people… showing us both our strengths and, more poignantly, our weaknesses. And then, he more or less said that in the last question.
I’ve copied in below some passages from the book that were most meaningful to me, including the last question I mention above. I really recommend reading or listening to the entire thing.
For a long time, autism was not well understood and we as a society only recently started treating it with serious empathy. I’m paraphrasing a complicated topic, but basically the old approach was to punish autistic kids for doing something you didn’t want them to do (e.g yelling) without ever really understanding why they were acting that way. The new approach is to first understand what sets autistic kids off (e.g. sensory overload) and try to minimize that and encourage calmer responses.
Doesn’t this sound familiar for a lot of things?
As I’ve read more about how to better raise autistic kids, I can’t but wonder, shouldn’t we be treating everyone this way? So much of our societal system involves punishing someone without ever bothering to deal with why they have acted that way. Or completely misunderstanding someone’s motives because we’ve already projected our own on to their actions.
For example, this is a huge issue in prison reform. A common scenario is a person who has grown up in the worst circumstances commits a crime and get locked up for it. We view it black and white as they are criminals, they have done something wrong. But there’s so much more behind it. How can we solve the problems that led to that incident? Are we too busy to care? How can we as a society learn from advances in autism and child-rearing psychology to better address all of the most vulnerable in our society (and yes I think many of the people we have in prisons are some of our most vulnerable in society).
There are so many examples of this. I know work is already being done by some people to help these issues, and I hope to be alive to see a time that the general population is on board with these ideas.
The Reason I Jump came at a timely point in my life where I have been thinking a LOT about seeing the other side (see this post). What I learned from this experience has greatly expanded my perception of this world, and I’m sure will continue to influence me and my work down the road.