Many peoples’ first encounter with autism on screen, Rain Man painted it in extreme shades. Dustin Hoffman’s character offers a kind of neurodiverse superhero: beating the bank in a Vegas casino, reeling off plane crash statistics, and providing Tom Cruise with opportunities for growth – all in one neat, Oscar-winning package. It’s not an entirely invalid portrayal of autism, just a misleading one: a Hollywoodised, neurotypical-centric depiction that most people with personal experience would find unrecognisable.
Warm and empathetic, British filmmaker Jerry Rothwell's globe-spanning The Reason I Jump is the perfect kind of corrective. It’s a journey into the lives – and headspaces – of several young non-verbal autistic people around the world that’s part immersive deep dive, part primal scream of upset and frustration, and part cri de coeur for more understanding and empathy from the rest of us.
The doc takes its name from bestselling autism memoir, ‘The Reason I Jump: One Boy’s Voice from the Silence of Autism’, by Naoki Higashida, a non-verbal neurodiverse 13-year-old from Japan. Played by Japanese-British actor Jim Fujiwara, Higashida wanders in solitude through the film, as if connecting and disconnecting from a world that is both wondrous and overwhelming. His words provide an intermittent voiceover.
This non-verbal teenager’s insights were so impactful in print that they moved Booker Prize-nominated novelist David Mitchell and his wife, Keiko Yoshida, to translate them into English. ‘The book felt like an envoy from another world,’ explains Mitchell, whose own child is neurodivergent and whose parental experiences – of overwhelming love and joy, interspersed with moments of meltdown – is movingly mirrored by the other parents in the film.
The film’s neurodiverse young people are all nonverbal yet in their own way, expert at communicating. For Amrit in India, feelings spill out through her amazing art; for Ben in America, it’s with the help of a spelling device and a lifelong connection with his autistic friend, Emma. The Reason I Jump captures that idea in an unpatronising, optimistic way, while giving neurotypical people a preconception-busting wake-up call. ‘Neurotypicals are rubbish at understanding anything that is not neurotypical,’ concludes Mitchell. This emotional film will help shift that dial.
Out in UK and US cinemas Jun 18.