What a silent Japanese boy with an alphabet grid taught me about the creative power of the brain

David Mitchell in the New Statesman:

ScreenHunter_2752 Jul. 13 20.22Naoki Higashida is an amiable and thoughtful young man in his early twenties who lives with his family in Chiba, a prefecture adjacent to Tokyo. Naoki has autism of a type labelled severe and non-verbal, so a free-flowing conversation of the kind that facilitates the lives of most of us is impossible for him. By dint of training and patience, however, he has learned to communicate by “typing out” sentences on an alphabet grid – a keyboard layout drawn on card with an added “YES”, “NO” and “FINISHED”. Naoki voices the phonetic characters of the Japanese hiragana alphabet as he touches the corresponding Roman letters and builds up sentences, which a transcriber takes down. (Nobody else’s hand is near Naoki’s during this process.)

If this sounds like an arduous way to get your meaning across, you’re right, it is; in addition, Naoki’s autism bombards him with distractions and prompts him to get up mid-sentence, pace the room and gaze out of the window. He is easily ejected from his train of thought and forced to begin the sentence again. I’ve watched Naoki produce a complex sentence within 60 seconds, but I’ve also seen him take 20 minutes to complete a line of just a few words. By writing on a laptop Naoki can dispense with the human transcriber, but the screen and the text-converter (the drop-down menus required for writing Japanese) add a new layer of distraction.

I met Naoki’s writing before I met Naoki. My son has autism and my wife is from Japan, so when our boy was very young and his autism at its most grimly challenging, my wife searched online for books in her native language that might offer practical insight into what we were trying (and often failing) to deal with. Internet trails led to The Reason I Jump, written when its author was only 13. Our bookshelves were bending under weighty tomes by autism specialists and autism memoirs, but few were of much “hands-on” help with our non-verbal, regularly distressed five-year-old.

More here.