Autism and comedy: target of ridicule or fair game?

I had a free day yesterday, so decided to go into London and try to see The Book of Mormon.

It was an interesting day, and an interesting experience. I’d seen the show a few years ago, and thought that I’d go and try for the ticket lottery (£20 for front row tickets!). Of course, I had a plan B if I didn’t get tickets through the lottery… one thing I have come to terms with is my need to plan for uncertainty; to contain as much uncertainty as possible within defined boundaries. So I knew that I was definitely going to see something at the theatre, I just didn’t know what.

But the lottery worked out, as I suspected it might on an off-peak Wednesday afternoon.

The show was great, I really enjoyed it – although if you’re religious or offended by swearing, you should probably go and see something else. But the experience was not without its challenges (including the heat – the Trafalgar Square fountains looked very inviting…)

Even getting the tickets threw up a challenge when the box office asked for my phone number. I don’t use the phone, never answer it if I’m not expecting a call, and don’t like giving out my number when I don’t know how it’s going to be used. I was trying to explain that, but they insisted on having a phone number before they would sell me a ticket “for security purposes”. Which is… fine, I guess, I don’t have issues with security, but it made me anxious that someone was going to call me; that I was going to have to deal with something that I’m not competent to deal with. Not sure what they’d have done if I didn’t have a phone number – probably not sold me the tickets (I wonder how that fits with the theatre’s accessibility policy?).

And the show itself affected me in ways I didn’t expect.

The last time I saw it was shortly after it opened in London, so well before my diagnosis. I hadn’t realised how difficult I would find watching some of the early numbers.

Because here’s the thing. There are standard comedy tropes that overlap uncomfortably with common characteristics of people on the autism spectrum. The outsider; the socially incompetent ‘weirdo’; the individual obsessed with minutiae.

The issue seems to be where “geeky” and “autistic” traits overlap – and of course not all people with geeky interests are autistic, and not all autistic people have geeky interests. But – as per the Venn diagram below – much of the comedy material seems to be in this area of overlap, where behaviours could be explained as either a manifestation of geekiness or an indication of autism.

venn diagram

And this was the case for the start of the musical as well. The butt of the jokes was a socially-awkward man who didn’t fit in with other people, didn’t understand social conventions, seemed obsessed with rules and had an intense interest in science fiction. Which all felt uncomfortably familiar (my special interest isn’t science fiction, but I know that particular obsession is not uncommon in our community).

I am sure that the intention of comedy is not (generally) to mock people with autism. But still… autistic traits are made fun of by non-autistic people in ways that would be completely unacceptable in relation to other disabilities.

So that was all a bit uncomfortable at first (and, yes, I do see the irony in being slightly offended at a show that sets out to offend in a completely different way).

But then one song made me cry. It’s not about autism at all, but seems to articulate the expectations placed on people with autism by the neurotypical world. Or perhaps that’s just what I’m getting from it at the moment: I am stressed and tired and was hoping that this was going to be more of an escape from reality than it actually was.

Maybe my ‘helpful’ obsession (i.e. not murder mysteries) isn’t so helpful after all…

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