Publishing several books, being a motivational speaker and being a passionate advocate - These are things most people dream of doing and being, let alone accomplishing them by the age of 25. Naoki Higashida has done all of these things. He’s an exceptional young man; he’s very smart, witty, and he has autism. Naoki was diagnosed with severe, nonverbal autism when he was just five years old. Yes, nonverbal. He has diligently taught himself to use an alphabet grid to type sentences to communicate.
He is one of many affected by autism who are trying to debunk the many misunderstandings of the relationship between autism and communication. He wants others to understand that he’s not being rude on purpose. Just because he can’t look people in the eye to talk doesn’t mean he’s being rude. Autism is a spectrum disorder that affects 1 in 68 children. One child may be verbal, but they can repeat themselves over and over. Another child may not be able to speak, but can use a letterboard to communicate. Just because a person with autism doesn’t give a response doesn’t mean they didn’t hear or process a question. In the past, many healthcare providers have said to “dumb down” sentences or just use single words when communicating with children with autism. However, Naoki and other children are proving that to be false. Many children thrive when talked to just like anyone else.
After all, they are just kids, and all kids want to be treated equally.
Let’s dig a little deeper into these misconceptions.
Not being rude on purpose
People without autism can communicate both verbally and nonverbally; we use sounds to form words but also shrug our shoulders and point with our finger. For children and adults with autism, they may verbally say “No” but really want to say “Yes” in their minds, or they could miscommunicate by nodding “Yes” when they meant to shake their head “No.” Just because people with autism have a more difficult time communicating doesn’t mean they can’t communicate at all.
Like others affected by autism, Naoki gets distracted easily. He may be trying to form a sentence when, all of a sudden, he jumps up and paces the room, or walks to the window to study his surroundings. And when he goes back to finish his sentence, it could take him 20 minutes. Autism affects speech and communication skills greatly, but just because someone like Naoki cannot look you in the eye doesn’t mean he’s being rude. It simply is an effect of his autism. He doesn’t mean to do it; he just can’t control eye contact, or lack thereof.
It’s a spectrum
It’s important to keep in mind that autism is a spectrum disorder. Some children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) can communicate verbally. But just because they can communicate doesn’t mean they don’t have difficulties. At times, they may repeat a word or phrase over and over. They may talk in a robotic voice, or sing their sentences. Some people with ASD count or recite information about a topic that interests them. It’s sometimes hard to carry on a back-and-forth conversation with another person. So, it’s important not to take it personally when you don’t get the answer to a question you’ve asked. Sometimes a person with autism is just plain frustrated because they cannot verbally communicate how they’d like to. This may result in outbursts or inappropriate behaviors like head-banging.
Non-communication doesn’t mean cognitive impairment
In Naoki’s book titled The Reason I Jump, he explains that non-communication doesn’t mean he and others with ASD are also mentally nonfunctioning. Just because someone with autism laughs at times of seriousness or cannot respond how you’d like them to, doesn’t mean they don’t comprehend what is being said to them. Naoki’s book has opened the eyes of its readers.
One reader, David, whose son has autism, said his wife and he started to speak in sentences instead of using single words or short phrases. He said his son’s eye contact started to improve. His son started to engage more with his family. David also said his son’s vocabulary grew, with the help of a tutor. And his self-harming episodes became nonexistent. David said The Reason I Jump has helped him realize that severe autism may look like severe mental disability, but it isn’t.
Fall Down 7 Times, Get Up 8
Fall Down 7 Times, Get Up 8 is, aside from a Japanese proverb, another work of Naoki. It’s a book about persistence and growth. Naoki looks back on his younger years and reflects on his 18-22-year-old self. There is no cure for ASD, but Naoki is paving the way and changing how children and adults with autism are perceived. One of the ways Naoki is changing current perceptions is in the way the spectrum is labeled. “Verbal,” “Nonverbal,” “Mild,” “Severe,” “Low functioning,” and “High functioning” are just a few of the most popular ways healthcare practitioners are currently labeling ASD. When society hears what label a child is, they automatically make a judgment. What society is lacking is all the underlying factors that affect the spectrum. Factors like: cognitive understanding, behavioral, sensory processing, gross and fine motor skills. And other variables like: mood, hunger, tiredness, and even season. Society needs to see that ASD is not cut and dry. Books like Naoki has written are for everyone to read, to broaden their understanding, and to sensitize them to their hurtful labels and judgments.
Children with ASD are always learning. Parents, teachers, therapists, and tutors are helping to pave the learning pathway for children diagnosed with ASD. One mother says they started Rapid Prompt Method (RPM) with her “nonverbal” seven-year-old. After just eight months, Ryan can answer questions using his letterboard. His complex thoughts have surprised her and she now realizes that the misconception that autistic children don’t understand what’s being said to them is not true. Ryan can read and spell. She said he has taught himself. He’s imaginative and creative. Ryan’s compassionate and affectionate. Ryan’s mom just wants him to be allowed learn and to be treated with respect. She urges people to talk with Ryan just like they would any other person. Life with autism is challenging but it’s definitely rewarding.
Be direct, but compassionate
When talking with someone who has autism, be direct. Don’t be judgmental; instead, show compassion. If you see a mother with a child who’s throwing a tantrum, be understanding, Offer kind words or maybe just a sincere hug. To the child throwing the tantrum, don’t judge; smile at them.
Noaki is breaking the mold and misunderstandings. If you haven’t read his book The Reason I Jump, it might be worth looking into. It gives great detail and insight into his life as a child with autism. Since autism is a spectrum disorder, it affects everyone differently. A person does not “grow” out of autism; however, if noticed early in life and fostered with love, patience, and the right practices, a child can learn to live much more effectively with autism. If shown respect and compassion, anyone with autism’s quality of life will improve.
Children with autism are still children, and they deserve love, respect, and compassion.