This review was originally posted on my Tumblr blog in September 2017.
Written by Naoki Higashida, a very smart, very self-aware, and very charming thirteen-year-old boy with autism, it is a one-of-a-kind memoir that demonstrates how an autistic mind thinks, feels, perceives, and responds in ways few of us can imagine. Parents and family members who never thought they could get inside the head of their autistic loved one, at last, have a way to break through to the curious, subtle, and complex life within.
Using an alphabet grid to painstakingly construct words, sentences, and thoughts that he is unable to speak out loud, Naoki answers even the most delicate questions that people want to know. Questions such as: “Why do people with autism talk so loudly and weirdly?” “Why do you line up your toy cars and blocks?” “Why don’t you make eye contact when you’re talking?” and “What’s the reason you jump?” (Naoki’s answer: “When I’m jumping, it’s as if my feelings are going upward to the sky.”) With disarming honesty and a generous heart, Naoki shares his unique point of view on not only autism but life itself. His insights—into the mystery of words, the wonders of laughter, and the elusiveness of memory—are so startling, so strange, and so powerful that you will never look at the world the same way again.
Oh, dear. I knew that when I started reading about autism, I was going to eventually find something horrific. I just wasn’t expecting it to be this one.
This book is very negative about autism. And no, I’m not one of those autistic people who overly romanticizes autism. It’s not that black & white for me. Autism makes my life very difficult and I’m often anxious & depressed because of it, but it also makes me who I am and I wouldn’t want to be cured of all that autism is. (Just the negative parts, but I feel like that would be even more impossible.)
My autism comes with some awesome qualities like attention to detail and an unique perspective and special interests and hyperfocus and a great connection with animals. Also, like Naoki Higashida says in his book, “For us, you see, having autism is normal — so we can’t know for sure what your ‘normal’ is even like.”
There are so many good questions in this book and I felt like none of them were answered in a way that would help neurotypicals understand us better. There’s a lot of “people with autism do this but I don’t know why”.
This book is filled to the brim with generalizations. It would make for repetitive writing to always have to write ‘some/most autistic people’ all the time, but I feel like this is the other end of it. It should have been a mix, just like with the use of ‘person first language’. Many autistic people prefer to be talked about as ‘an autistic person’, rather than ‘a person with autism’, because the latter makes it sound like a disease that needs curing, among many other valid reasons. Of course, there are some autistic people who prefer ‘person with autism’, but it’s not the majority, as far as I know. Still, it’s always best to always ask the person in question what they prefer.
There is a lot of ‘we’ and ‘us autistic kids/people’ rather than ‘I’, and that annoys me. I think some neurotypicals reading this might forget that Naoki cannot possibly speak for all autistic people.
On page 148, he explains that neurotypicals often think autistics ‘won’t be able to understand the plan for the day just by listening’, and he says that us autistics will eventually get better at it. Then he says that ‘being shown photos of places we’re going to visit on an upcoming school trip, for example, can spoil our fun’, in such a generalized way… And like, if my mom had read this and stopped helping me prepare for new situations, I would’ve had so many more meltdowns.
I hate to be the one to have to say, ’#NotAllAutistics’ but hey, someone’s gotta do it.
The translation felt awkward, but maybe that’s just the way Japanese to English translations end up. It felt very similar to the English translations of Marie Kondō’s books.
And maybe they translated it word-for-word to stay true to Naoki’s thoughts, but I felt like it could’ve been edited better. On page 149, he writes: “One of the biggest misunderstandings you have about us is your belief that our feelings aren’t as subtle and complex as yours.” Again, such a generalization. It would have been better to explain that autistic people not feeling as deeply is an autism stereotype. Just that changes the entire feeling of the sentence.
Most of the writing is very simple and straight-forward, as you can expect when the author is writing a book using an Alphabet Grid (the letters of the alphabet + numbers on a piece of paper that Naoki points to). And those simple parts sound very realistic coming from the mind of a 13-year-old, autistic or not. But then there are these weirdly poetic parts that don’t feel like they were written by the same person. Almost like David Mitchell wrote them…But that’s a theory for a different day.
This is what David Mitchell said about the translation process: “KA Yoshida did the heavy lifting from the Japanese into English, and in a sense I provided the stylistic icing on the cake. But I also needed to respect the fact that it was a 13-year-old boy writing, not a 44-year-old novelist, so it couldn’t sound as if it was written for the New Yorker.”
The absolute worst part was page 151, where Naoki Higashida (or is it David Mitchell?…) answers the question, “What are your thoughts on autism itself?”
“I think that people with autism are born outside the regime of civilization. Sure, this is just my own made-up theory, but I think that, as a result of all the killings in the world and selfish planet-wrecking that humanity has committed, a deep sense of crisis exists.
Autism has somehow arisen out of this. Although people with autism look like other people physically, we are in fact very different in many ways. We are more like travellers from the distant, distant past. And if, by our being here, we could help the people of the world remember what truly matters for the Earth, that would give us a quiet pleasure.”
Sorry, but I call bullshit. Autistic people aren’t here to teach neurotypicals anything. This is romanticization and I don’t like it. Also, can confirm that autistic people are not in fact time travellers.
If you want to learn about autism, you’re not going to learn much from this book. Instead, Find An Autistic Person Near You! That’s always the best way to learn. And if you don’t know any, there are plenty of autistic people from all over the spectrum on the internet who would love to help you understand. Me included.
All my other recommendations are about autism in women specifically, so if you’re interested in that, pick up Rudy Simone’s Aspergirls: Empowering Females with Asperger Syndrome or Dominique Dumortier’s From Another Planet: Autism from Within.
And if you want even more reasons why this book is problematic, here’s a good article: No, autistic children are not the spiritual saviours of mankind.