Ever since Hans Asperger showed cartoons to his ‘little professors’ and they didn’t laugh, it was believed that people with autism lacked a sense of humour. Today, a new wave of ‘neuro-funky’ comedians are busting myths, shining a light on their reality, and challenging us all to communicate in ways that make everyone feel included.
Grace, 21, loves to laugh. She laughs at her sister’s dry humour; at comedians Joel Donnett, Katherine Ryan and Ben Stiller; at bad contestants on the X Factor; at happy memories. Recently, she had an argument with a support worker at the residential facility where she lives, and found it so funny she laughed for an hour afterwards.
But people don’t always appreciate Grace’s sense of humour. “There are times when people think I shouldn’t be laughing,” she says. “It can be a problem. Some situations aren’t funny and people have a go at me for laughing. At school, my teachers weren’t trained in autism and I used to get sent out of the classroom all the time for laughing inappropriately.
I can’t help it; I express myself in different ways when I laugh, and some people don’t understand. Sometimes, it’s an anxious laugh.”
Like many people with autism, Grace has learned the hard way that having a different take on humour can put up barriers to social connection.
But increasingly, *‘neurodivergent’ comedians are using laughter as a tool to bring us together. And they’re celebrating the very incongruity that can sometimes set them apart.
In new BBC3 comedy ‘Dinosaur’, real-life stand-up Ashley Storr plays Nina, a young undiagnosed woman negotiating the dystopian arena of internet dating. Her opening gambit – ‘I’m taking you for a drink’ – precisely skewers the abyss between neurotypical people, who use games and metaphors and verbal rituals to convey or mask their feelings, and people with autism, who are more likely to be open books.
One of the most famous comedians with autism is Hannah Gadsby, whose dry, insightful routines are a gloriously clear window on her world: ‘People think I’m intimidating, whereas I’m happy and have just not told my face.’
Humour like this economically conveys what it means to feel and live differently, while making everyone laugh. And this is important, because ‘neurodivergent’ comedy can help us all solve a thing called the double empathy problem.
Basically, when people with very different experiences of the world interact with each other, they will struggle to empathise with each other. Historically, this misunderstanding was blamed squarely on autistic people and their ‘disordered’ cognition, but it’s finally being recognised that ‘neurotypicals’ are equally guilty of a lack of reciprocity and understanding. And this has implications for us all.
How can our own communications forge greater mutual understanding and greater appreciation of neurodiversity? Firstly, through co-creation. Asking neurodiverse people to contribute to the ads, apps, films and brochures we make, and to review them, will help get the tonality and language right for everyone.
And secondly, it’s clear that humour has a real role to play in breaking down barriers. While it should be handled sensitively, we shouldn’t assume it’s off the menu: something that makes both ‘neurotypicals’ and neurodiverse people laugh has got to be good news.
On that note, over to comedian Ria Lina: “Isn’t Ass-burgers a terrible term for a bunch of people who take words literally?”
*’Neurodivergent’ describes people who don’t think like the majority - encompassing not only people with autism but also those living with things like dyslexia and dyspraxia.
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