Yesterday I did a comedy routine at a fundraiser for a school to get solar panels. I joined my friend and talented muso James Williams on stage to do a song – a rewrite of “Barbie Girl” to parody it to “Plastic World” calling for people to get real about climate change. I’m proud of it, it’s funny and makes a sharp point or two.
It was a wonderful gig. A sensory safe venue, a great crowd and a great bunch of fellow comedians who made me feel safe and comedy for a cause. That is super important to me.
I did a three-minute set about how as an Autistic woman I could relate to climate change scientists, how we are a small percentage of the population and people often don’t listen to us.
I’ve started to do jokes about the “you don’t look autistic” phenomenon as well.
This was probably the first set for a regular audience (my solo show attracts people who know the topic) where I out my Autism 100% and not subtly.
Throughout being “out” about Autism in the last three years, I’ve had countless “but you’re so <insert autism here>” conversations.
Note…I use Autism with a capital when it’s about pride, as it should be. When written with a little a or (autism, autistic), it’s about stereotyping.
Which I really don’t mind because we can unpack stereotypes and on stage is a good place for it. But I wanted to address some of the things that come up in these conversations here, in writing, as well.
But you’re such a good speaker. Not all of us are non-verbal and even if we are non-verbal that doesn’t mean we can’t communicate well. I always “talked too much” and was a “chatterbox”. My stim is speaking. Chatter-boxing.
I was a chatterbox and as a kid I waffled on about things and people no one else was interested in and bored them to the point people avoided me. Really, who wants to hear about the commonalities between Stalin and Hitler for over an hour? For me it was fascinating, but I couldn’t read the social cues that other people were bored.
I’m channelling that stim on stage. That’s why it’s sometimes I’m unpredictable and sometimes my best comedy material comes from off the cuff comments I add in the moment.
As I got older and studied what the world expected of a speaker, I found out my commentary about how I see the world was the funny stuff. Other people put me on stage. I didn’t get up one day and decide to do it, people encouraged me to.
By the way, at least on a comedy stage I know if you like me or if what I am saying is interesting. You’ll laugh. If you don’t laugh or heckle me, do you really think that bothers me? Nope, that’s been my entire life. I’ve been the butt of a lot of jokes, now I’m taking that power back.
But you’re good at improv. Improv is like a mirror for my whole life. I’m constantly anxious what social cues I should be reading and how to interpret them. Improv allows me to play with that in a way that is “outside of the world” and has little consequences.
So, improv makes me feel emboldened to turn my filters off. I’ve had to mask my Autism until very recently. I can flap my arms, exaggerate movements and facial expressions and make observations of the world like I want to.
If you could see what goes on in my head around every social interaction, you’d want to take a nap. It’s fucking exhausting and I’ve also got considerable sensory input going on…
I hear everything, I see every detail, I have been known to self-harm if my skin is in contact with some surfaces. My sense of smell is not too heightened, but people who love perfume make me want to hide in a corner.
But you’re producing so much material/so productive. This one perplexes me, yet again. I’m not sure if this means that I should not be able to do anything because of Autism or in spite of it. It’s neither.
I communicate best in writing and convert it to speech, because it’s my “work around” for my communication struggles. Thus why this blog is scribe and speak, not speak and scribe.
Speaking is a huge challenge and is levered off an awful lot of writing first. I need mental scripts for simple interactions. Complex notions I can speak about, because my brain is constantly trying to make sense of the world and that becomes my stream of consciousness. I’m constantly looking for systems and patterns. So, it’s like information pouring out from my brain into my fingers when I write and some of that ends up in speaking. But it also exhausts me. That’s why I am not very social, that’s why I’d rather go into the wilderness quietly or stay at home alone.
But you’re confident, you don’t seem <insert autism here>. I’m terrified. I’m anxious before I go on stage. I have irritable bowel before. I pace. I rewrite the work three hours before. I only want to be around certain people or none at all. Afterwards I sleep heavily and if I am stupid enough to eat, I develop terrible acid reflux that hurts so much I vomit. I have “work arounds” for this, strategies for dealing with it.
But you’re fine on stage. Again, this is not because of or in spite of being autistic. It just is. But some context.
I’m not looking at you in the crowd. If I do get up close to someone, they think I am looking at them, I’m looking at their chin or glasses frames. I look over the top of the audience’s head. You know…where public speaking classes tell you to look…I do naturally! Plus, I like being on stage…I’m away from the crowd, not in it.
But you’re unpredictable. Okay! Yes. Some think this makes me funny, others think this makes me unprofessional.
I would love to be one of those comedy shows that gets “tightly scripted and performed with precision” reviews. Anxiety takes over with the demand of “polish” and that’s why I write heaps of material.
I always need back up plans because the scripts I plan fall out of my head I can find whatever comes to my mind when presented with 80 people in front of me. My solo show is the only show that looks very similar each time and has option a, option b and option c scripts. Because it’s 55 minutes and around 15 minutes I start to feel comfortable and settle in. I like telling stories or musical parody or improv.
Finally, it’s really challenging for me to do comedy but I love it. I keep going because I love making people laugh and I love raising awareness.
I want Autistic young people to not go through as much as I have and to feel more at home in the world around them. I want them to be themselves and not feel like the neurotypical world is where they feel like they are walking through waist high treacle (which is how I describe it).
Yesterday I was disappointed with my set before the song. But my mind was fixated on getting the song right and the anxiety was full throttle. The song was great.
I’m never going be the stand-up who stays beside the microphone stand with a microphone rested on chin, at 30 degrees to the left of the centre mid line of their lips. I’m never going to have a consistent set.
And I don’t care. I’m just being myself on stage in many ways. I don’t think we need to define comedy like we define theatre. It doesn’t have to be perfectly recited. I’m happy to be clumsy in delivery, goofy, oddball off-the-cuff, off-key. I’m entertaining and I love it (including the challenges) and that’s all that matters.
One day the world will look at an Autistic performer and stop the “but you’re…” and just make it “you’re”.
Come check me out at Melbourne International Comedy Festival –
“Mad Pride” (psst, I’m on the Friday night, the 5th April)…