When you have a child with autism you are constantly trying to figure out why he does the things he does. What makes him tick? Of course I can ask Bennett, “Why do you like jumping on the trampoline so much?” or “Why do you like spinning?” or “What TV show are you reenacting?” (when he grins and moves robotically to a soundtrack inside his head), but my questions are often ignored. I can only guess that Bennett jumps and spins and performs silent live theatre for no audience because these actions give him some kind of sensory input that he craves. (A couple of years ago he went through a phase where he shook his head back and forth whenever he watched TV; it was a kind of screen-induced vestibular stimulation that eventually ran its course.)
So when Blake brought home the book The Reason I Jump, a New York Times bestseller written by a 13-year-old boy with autism, I immediately dove in. The author, Naoki Higashida, is primarily non-verbal, but he learned to use an alphabet grid to construct words and put into paragraphs the answers to questions people have about autism, such as, “Why do you ignore us when we’re talking to you?” The answers are Higashida’s, but so many of them resonated with me as possible explanations for some of Bennett’s behaviours.
When Higashida is asked the question, “What’s the reason you jump?” he writes:
“…when I’m jumping it’s as if my feelings are going upward to the sky. Really, my urge to be swallowed up by the sky is enough to make my heart quiver. When I’m jumping I can feel my body parts really well, too — my bounding legs and my clapping hands — and that makes me feel good, so good … I’m shaking loose the ropes that are tying up my body.”
But of course! When Bennett jumps on the trampoline he is graceful and free instead of clumsy and awkward. He has boundless energy and a smile and, what’s more, he can jump as well as any typical kid, maybe even higher.
I often feel that Bennett is trapped inside his body, unable to express himself and communicate freely, and this book really drives that point home: “We can never make ourselves understood,” Higashida writes. But The Reason I Jump helps, and that is a gift.
One of the questions the book answers is, “Why are you obsessive about certain things?” The author explains that lining up toys, or watching the garage door close, or turning the fan on and off, is like a physical compulsion — scratching a horrible itch, if you will — and that he’d go crazy if he didn’t do it. That giving in to the obsession makes him feel soothed and calm. But also that one day, the need to obsess over that particular thing just stops: “Somehow our brain flashes up a GAME OVER signal,” he writes.
I’ve noticed this has happened for Bennett. For the longest time — years — every night at bedtime Bennett made sure his door was open and the bathroom light was on (part of his fear-of-the-dark narrative). And then last night at bedtime, out of the blue, he asked me to close the door and then proceeded to Sleep Through The Night… in the DARK. All I can guess is that his brain flashed the GAME OVER signal. Because there is still so much I don’t understand, Bennett will continue to surprise me. That’s a good thing. Perhaps one day he’ll no longer need to jump.