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Paul Swift

‘Sometimes I actually pity you for not being able to see the beauty of the world in the same way we do. Really, our vision of the world can be incredible, just incredible...’ So wrote a 13 year-old Japanese boy, Naoki Higashida, in a landmark book about the experience of living with autism. The book comprises Naoki’s responses to more than 50 questions addressing common tropes about autism. Because Naoki’s autism makes spoken communication almost impossible, even now as an adult, the book was written using ‘facilitated communication’ in the form of an alphabet grid. For David Mitchell, the novelist, co-translator of the book and the parent of a child with autism, The Reason I Jump ‘was a revelatory godsend’ because ‘it felt as if, for the first time, our own son was talking to us about what was happening inside his head, through Naoki’s words’. Indeed, the appeal of the book lies in its conversational tone, combined with an emotional literacy that runs counter to a number of preconceptions about what it’s like to live with autism. Outside In Pathways supports people with complex needs – including autism - and, while everyone’s experience will be different, their autism undoubtedly influences how they experience, and respond to the museums and galleries where our work takes place. Through years of experience and close observation we have come to recognise when and, to some extent, why people’s moods are affected by these environments. Unlike Naoki, most of the people we support are able to communicate verbally and convey to us something about their emotional responses to engaging creatively with art and culture. Sometimes we get a glimpse of the ‘incredible vision’ he describes, yet our understanding of the process by which this happen is necessarily limited. Naoki’s response to one particular question was therefore enlightening. Asked, ‘when you look at something, what do you see first?’ he writes that people with autism see something detail by detail, before ‘the whole image sort of floats into focus’, so that ‘when a colour is vivid or a shape is eye-catching, then that’s the detail that claims our attention, and then our hearts kind of drown in it, and we can’t concentrate on anything else’. This resonates with our experiences of working with people with autism; not just in what we observe and hear from them, but also in the art they produce. The book has been a bestseller around the world, but it has also attracted controversy with some experts challenging the scientific basis of the facilitated communication used in its production. Some are sceptical of the claims that the book represents Naoki’s own ‘voice’, suggesting that the tone and vocabulary are not that of a teenage boy. Nevertheless, it is a thought-provoking and entertaining read.

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