The cast: Comedy group Asperger’s Are Us members Ethan Finlan, left, Noah Britton, New Michael Ingemi and Jack Hanke.
Jack Hanke, 18, arrived at rehearsal wearing a giant sombrero and green kimono. Noah Britton, 29, took off his pants mid-practice, explaining that they still stank from last night’s concert. He ran through the rest of his comedy troupe’s practice wearing boxers, and the group’s signature T-shirt, which reads: “I don’t want your pity.”
Britton, Hanke and the other two members of Asperger’s Are Us don’t care who thinks they’re weird. Or even funny. They think they’re hilarious. And if others don’t, who’s the one with the disability?
Many traits the public has long found engaging or amusing have their roots — perhaps surprisingly — in Asperger’s. The absurdity of Monty Python, the flat demeanor of Star Trek‘s Mr. Spock and the awkwardness of Andy Kaufman, are all common Aspergian traits. Dr. Sheldon Cooper on Big Bang Theory gets laughs for those characteristics, too.
“In the last few years, Asperger’s has become recognized as a foundation for some elements of comedy,” said John Elder Robison, a nationally renowned Asperger’s advocate, and author of Be Different. “All of a sudden there is a broad public awareness that the reason for behavioral differences in those characters would probably be called Asperger’s.”
Common traits of Asperger’s and their consequences:
Intense focus – can limit ability to multitask, as well as enable expertise.
Hypersensitivity to sensory input, change and human interactions – can lead to being overwhelmed by sights, sounds and stresses, as well new observations, insights
Inwardly directed – often fail to notice the impact of their behavior on others; capable of being extremely insightful.
Don’t conform to social norms , often because they can’t understand them – can lead to social isolation, as well as creativity, originality
Linear, literal thinking – can lead to confusion about metaphors and sarcasm, and difficulty learning without ordered instruction, as well as bluntness, an inability to lie, and desire for fairness.
That growing recognition helps groups such as the Boston-based Asperger’s Are Us, which is getting gigs right now because it’s Autism Awareness Month. They’re grateful for that, but as their shirts suggest, the men aren’t seeking compassion.
“We’d much rather (the audience) appreciate us as comedians than as people who’ve overcome adversity,” said Britton, the group’s informal leader since he was the others’ camp counselor seven summers ago.
Asperger’s, which is defined by social awkwardness and repetitive behaviors, is part of the broader “Autism Spectrum,” of related disorders.
Members of Asperger’s Are Us revel in absurdist humor, like Kaufman’s and Monty Python’s. Some of their own jokes get laughs because their delivery is so dead-pan, some because they offer insights into male adolescence, and some because they’re just plain wacky, like a skit in which one member says another has gotten him pregnant and the other replies, “You can’t be pregnant, I’m bubble-wrap.”
There’s been little academic research on what makes people laugh, and virtually none on the connection between autism and humor, several scientists said. And maybe that doesn’t matter.
“You don’t want to rely on academics to tell you whether something is funny,” said Simon Baron-Cohen, a leading autism researcher in England and cousin to comedian Sacha Baron Cohen. “Ultimately you want to look at the audience response.”
The group’s biggest show, held last summer in an old movie theater, was received with a standing ovation. Several audience members described the group’s humor as “fresh,” and “raw.”
In person, group members toss off endless puns and bathroom jokes, cracking one another up. They still laugh at the same gags they thought up as campers. One benefit of Asperger’s, they say, is that they appreciate a joke just as much the 40th time as the first.
They rib one another about the obsessions, or perseverations, common to people with Asperger’s. One skit lampoons 19-year-old group member Ethan Finlan’s obsession with train schedules.
That transportation expertise comes in handy, though, when planning group rehearsals, they said, and other Aspergian obsessions can be useful, too. Britton’s passion for psychology propelled him through a master’s degree and into a teaching position at a local community college.
Riffing recently on the ubiquitous jigsaw puzzle-themed autism awareness logo, the group’s fourth member, New Michael Ingemi, 19, wonders, “What’s it supposed to imply? That we’re missing a piece?” (Ingemi calls himself “New Michael” because his father’s name is Michael too. )
“We’re just differently assembled,” Hanke responds.
Obviously, not everyone with autism has this group’s quick wit and urge to perform. Many on the spectrum can’t speak; others struggle to hold a simple conversation.
June Groden, who runs a Rhode Island network of autism services, recently began training students in conventional humor, to help them fit in better socially. Young children learn to be “goofier” by singing silly songs. Older students practice delivering jokes, learning to appreciate when others laugh with them.
“We want these kids to try and learn at least some mainstream humor and get something out of it,” she said.
Britton, appointed last month to the federal Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee, a congressionally mandated advisory group, says he has a much easier time sharing jokes with others on the spectrum than with “neurotypicals.”
When people ask Britton to describe the purpose of his comedy troupe, he knows they’re expecting him to say something like “raise awareness about autism.” Instead, he once responded: “We want to sail a flotilla to Spain. We’ve been building all these boats and we just want to get out there.”