I’ve long suspected that time doesn’t flow the way we’ve been taught it does. I believe that rather than moving along steadily from past through present to future, or following round in a huge karmic circle, it spirals, whirls and eddies through our lives, throwing all manner of interesting synchronicities, portents and realisations to us.
If we’re not looking out for them, these can be easily missed, but just a few are so strong that even the most myopic amongst us can’t fail to notice.
That’s how it was for me many decades ago, when I watched a grainy black and white documentary on the television.
I can’t remember the year, or how old I was, but still young enough that my mother was arguing with dad about whether it was suitable for me to watch something this harrowing – so sometime in the early 1960s, I would guess.
The BBC was very black and white in those days – no grey areas. Documentaries spoke with an assertive, authoritative voice and we all believed every word. The voice-over man with his ‘received English’ accent left no room for doubt or questioning. In his cold, compassionless voice, he was explaining childhood autism.
It was a brutal, terrible programme. Much footage of wild, staring children banging their heads against cot bars, howling and rocking or sitting mute and expressionless as adult carers tried vainly to elicit a response or interact with them in any meaningful way.
“Poor unfortunates…Locked away inside their own minds,” the dry voice intoned. “Unable to engage in any normal activities… Don’t appear to feel pain… Will frequently tear at their own flesh… Show no reaction or affection even to their own parents…”
Yes, this was certainly one of my out-of-time moments.
I don’t think I’d even heard of autism up to that point in my life. I’d certainly never come across anyone who was on the autistic spectrum. Yet I knew – utterly and overwhelmingly – that this was something I needed to know about and to understand.
“I don’t believe they don’t feel!” I remember yelling. “There must be some way to reach them.”
If I wasn’t crying, I was certainly close to tears.
My mother bustled me off to bed, with lame reassurances that ‘people like that’ were cared for in special places and that their carers were very kind to them, so I didn’t need to worry.
Those images and the chilling words left me horrified and frightened, yet still this strongest of intuitions was letting me know that what I had seen was extremely significant to me and would become a key part of my life. It was as if my future self had swirled back through time to ensure that this child-me was made aware of the importance of this subject and wouldn’t allow me to forget it.
The faces of those children, cowering, screaming and shaking wildly stayed with me. They became dream companions; at once filling me with cold dread and coaxing me to move closer, to find them and understand; to help the rest of the world to do likewise, so that no one would believe the cold, damning words of that documentary.
Now, half a century later, I can look back (and forward) at my work and contact with children and young adults on the autistic spectrum. So many have drifted into, out of and through my life. Some of my experiences and encounters, along with what I have learned, are detailed in a previous post.
Always – ever since that moment in my childhood – I’ve clung to the hope that, no matter how difficult, ways can and will be found for people with autistic spectrum perception to share their experience with the rest of us. My own encounters have allowed me to glimpse what is possible.
And now, thanks to the translation undertaken by author David Mitchell and his wife, we all have access to the words of 13-year-old Naoki Higashida, a Japanese boy who found a way to explain, from deep within the autistic spectrum, how it feels to be there and to attempt to interact with the neuro-typical population.
The Reason I Jump is a spellbinding book – eloquent and sensitive, with an honesty and simplicity that belies the young author’s deep insights into the differences and similarities between the two communities.
Nothing in the book surprises me. Every word strikes true and helps me to recognise and recall aspects of the wonderful young ASP people I have known and worked with. Certainly, as Naoki often comments, their lives can be stressful, difficult and almost impossible to comprehend, even for themselves. Friends, carers and family struggle to understand and meet their needs and he acknowledges this with compassion and regret. Despite all that, though, his is a message of hope.
Naoki’s book is currently no.3 in the Amazon UK bestseller list. Time has spiralled round this week, to remind me of my first encounter with autistic spectrum perception and to show me how, in the most curious manner, I and countless others are learning to bridge the gap between the two populations.