I have been reading a very remarkable book “Fall down seven times and get up eight,” by Naoki Higashida translated by David Mitchell and his wife K. A. Yoshida. Naoki is what we have called “autistic” or what he calls “neuro-atypical.” In this book, which was serialised last week on BBC Radio 4, he gives glimpses of what this difference means. For example, here is his outline of his thought process when his mother hears rain and rushes out to save her washing which is on the line:
1) A million pitter-patter-pitter-patter sounds. 2) I wonder, What could that noise be? 3) Mum cries, ‘It’s raining!’ Then the noise must be rain. 4) So I look out of the window … 5) … and watch the rain, mesmerised; yet as I watch now, I hear nothing; it’s like a close-up scene of rain in a silent movie. 6) Only now does the sound of the rain start to register. 7) I seek to connect the concept ‘rain’ to its sound; I search for common aspects between all the downpours in my memory and the rain now hammering down outside. 8) Upon finding common aspects, I feel relief and reassurance. 9) I wonder, How come it’s raining now? It was clear earlier. 10) Up to this point, my mother hadn’t crossed my mind. Now she comes downstairs, saying, ‘That shower was on us all of a sudden, wasn’t it?’ 11) I recall Mum running to the balcony to save the laundry. 12) How could she realise so quickly that it was raining?”
Naoki has no wired -up way of connecting the sound with the rain that produces it or of connecting rain with clothes getting wet. But he is not stupid. He can write a beautifully expressed sentence describing his dilemma.
If he experiences disconnection between sound and concept, he also finds huge gaps between his inner desires, wishes, recognitions, feelinsgs and any words he might us to express these. He describes how much he wants to thank someone for being good to him, and after great effort he says, “Have a nice day,” because that’s the last utterance he associates with gratitude.
I find his account of neuro -atypical life both terrifying and strangely familiar, for I have felt the perceptual gaps he exposes, although I have learned acceptable ways of bridgeing them. Sometimes I have loitered near the quicksands of naked experience before scuttling back to the safe shores of communal thinking. He is the foreigner who reminds me what is fundamentally human in my way of living.
I can barely imagine the terror of being neuro-atypical, the loneliness, the bewilderment, the powerlessness, yet I can relate to this young man’s story especially when it speaks about those moments when personal experience is at odds with what society expects. How much of myself have I surrendered in accomodating my thinking to the expectations of others?
The drawbacks of being neuro-atypical are clearly set out in this book without anger or blame. Neuro-typical readers are also introduced to everything positive in a life that initially seems alien. Naoki’s moments of pleasure, his recognition of relevant support, his delight in his own discovered gifts, are offered as gifts to the reader. How on earth has Naoki managed in the midst of so much pain, to be a grateful person? His explanation is revelatory:
“Try imagining you’re resident in a foreign country where you’re wholly ignorant of the language, but a person there is taking excellent care of you. Then, one day, along comes an interpreter who offers you a strictly limited period of time in which he or she will translate anything you wish to say. How would you use that opportunity? Would you really want to spend it mouthing off about the miseries you endure thanks to your feeble grasp of the language? Maybe many topics would spring to mind, but if you’re with someone you respect, I think the chances are high that, first and foremost, you’d want to express your appreciation.”
In response to this, I am Naoki, I am the neuro-atypical person, I am the one moving in worlds not fully realised, yet experiencing the blessed goodness and care of others. I am the one who lacks all knowledge of appropriate speech yet deeply desires to say, thank you. To whom? To the good people who have affirmed me and sustained me, yes; but beyond them to the One who put me here with all my inadequacies, to learn to be proud of what I am and can become.
I am very grateful to my brother, Naoki, for a painstaking account of his own life that helps me make sense of my own.
* Fall down seven times and get up eight” by Naoki Higashida, Amazon Kindle.