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Asperger’s Are Us

Alum’s comedy troupe brings unique perspective to the stage

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Noah Britton isn’t afraid of putting himself out there. After all, he’s the guy who started a punk music and performance art group, the Best Thing Ever, that performed nationwide—and unannounced—in bathrooms from the Waffle House to the Prudential Center. Now he’s founded another venture, the comedy troupe Asperger’s Are Us. All of the members have been diagnosed with the autism spectrum disorder.

Britton (CAS’05) met the other members of the troupe—Ethan Finlan, New-Michael Ingemi, and Jack Hanke—seven years ago when he was working as a counselor and they were campers at an acting camp for Aspies, as those with the syndrome refer to themselves. The boys had Britton laughing so hard he cried most days that summer. That got him thinking: why not reunite the group and take their show on the road.

So two years ago, Britton called his former campers, who are now 19 and 20 years old and either perform in a band or attend college on the North Shore. They started writing and producing sketches out of their homes and soon began branching out, performing in Salem restaurants, the Somerville Theatre, the Scottish Rite Theater, in Austin, Tex., and at several local schools—including Gordon College, UMass Lowell, and MIT. The troupe returns to Gordon College tomorrow for two shows, at 7 and 9 p.m.

The group’s comedy broaches the subject of Asperger’s syndrome (defined by the Mayo Clinic as a developmental disorder that affects a person’s ability to socialize and communicate effectively with others), but the comedians are more interested in making people laugh than in using their act to educate audiences. They often riff on the ridiculous—like in the sketch “I’m Pregnant,” in which one of the guys is “impregnated” by bubble wrap—or spin satire—as in “Blind Man Stand-up Act,” where they play audience members who support a blind comedian out of pity.

With Asperger’s, “there is a very particular sense of humor that’s based on things that are unexpected in life that don’t require explanation,” says Britton, recently interviewed sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with other troupe members on a couch in Salem’s Hawthorne Hotel. “Neurotypical comedy does require explanation, and that’s why we don’t like it.” Instead, the group is drawn to puns and humor that emphasize the absurdity in life.

Aspies tend to have intense focus, are internally driven, and hypersensitive—but not about touch, the comedians note. “It’s sensitivity that manifests itself in all kinds of different ways, especially socially,” says Ingemi, or during conflict.

One such moment of conflict arose during a rehearsal at Britton’s apartment. They were practicing a new sketch involving a bank robbery, and at one point Hanke shouted, “Help, I’m being stabbed.” Someone heard him and called 9-1-1. The Salem police arrived at Britton’s door within minutes. The experience left the guys shaken, even though the officers quickly recognized them from a recent article in the Salem News, and they decided to wrap for the day.

“Neurotypicals are like, ‘Oh, that was tense. Let’s take a minute, recover, and get back on track,’” Britton said. “But conflict in itself is punishing. Aspies recover more slowly from stress.”

Asperger’s Are Us sketch comedy troupe, Ethan Finlan, New-Michael Ingemi, Jack Hanke, Noah Britton

Finlan (from left), Ingemi, Hanke, and Britton (CAS'05) riff on the absurd and love to use puns and satire in their unique form of comedy.

Despite their social awkwardness (a hallmark of Asperger’s), the comedians say that performing in front of a crowd doesn’t bother them. “From the stage, the audience is sort of a large mass, a faceless blob,” Ingemi observes. And, Hanke adds, “It’s easier relating to a group of people rather than a single person.” The stage’s fourth wall does break down at the end of each show when the comedians answer questions about Asperger’s from the audience. That part of the show has grown so popular that the troupe recently announced on their Facebook page that they will lecture for, or consult with, schools, programs, or parent organizations “to know what to do with the Aspies you love.”

“We don’t want to be thought of as a group of people who are overcoming adversity,” Britton says. “The Original Kings of Comedy talked about being black all the time, ’cause that’s their lives and that’s where they get their material.” (The stand-up comedy film by Spike Lee he refers to is about the work of African American entertainers Steve Harvey, D. L Hughley, Cedric the Entertainer, and Bernie Mac.) “We’re the same way.”

“Wait—we’re not black?” Finlan jokes.

“We are, that’s what I’m saying,” Britton deadpans without missing a beat. “All our jokes are about how we’re black.” Becoming more serious, he says, “I really want the world to start seeing Asperger’s the way that they see homosexuality.”

“That it’s a sin and I want to be cured?” Ingemi quips.

Ignoring that, Britton says that 40 years ago, homosexuality was in the list of disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. “Asperger’s is listed as one right now and in 30 years it shouldn’t be. It’s mostly genetic. There’s some environmental component. It makes your life different. It makes some things impossible, and you need to adjust based on this. And that’s the extent of it. It definitely doesn’t need to be cured.”

Britton was 19 when he discovered he had Asperger’s. At the time, he was reading an article about the syndrome for a School of Education course he was taking on children with exceptionalities. “This explains every single thing that’s ever happened to me,” he recalls thinking. Britton’s diagnosis propelled him to study psychology and later to earn a master’s degree at Hunter College. He is now a psychology professor at a college in Boston and is a member of the federal Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee, which collaborates with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in an advisory role in regard to autism spectrum disorders.

“All of us grew up with horrible misconceptions about who we are,” Britton says. “I got into this field because I don’t want anyone else to have to go through that.” Asperger’s Are Us, he says, is part of that effort. The gifted comedians welcome everyone to their shows—those with personal ties to Asperger’s and those who simply want to have a good laugh.

“I think of it like P.T. Barnum,” says Britton, “where it’s a good circus and there’s something for everybody.”

Asperger’s Are Us will perform tomorrow, Saturday, December 1, at 7 and 9 p.m. at Gordon College, Jenks Hall, Room 237, 255 Grapevine Rd., Wenham, Mass. Tickets are $Pi for one (that’s $3.14, for the mathematically challenged), $10 for two. The show is for all ages.

5 Comments
Leslie Friday, BU Today, Boston University
Leslie Friday

Leslie Friday can be reached at lfriday@bu.edu; follow her on Twitter at @lesliefriday.

5 Comments on Asperger’s Are Us

  • MoonBatman on 11.30.2012 at 10:38 am

    That’s an ill tiger shirt, worn ironically or otherwise.

  • Annie Sullivan on 11.30.2012 at 11:36 pm

    I have worked with children on the spectrum in mainstreamed and self contained classrooms for the past 10 years. That spectrum is very wide and has intricate levels that may never be understood.   What I learned is that children diagnosed on the spectrum are under a magnifying glass in the early grade school years.  As diagnosed children approach adulthood, I noticed that previous obvious peccadillos, for lack of a better word, almost dissipate, although not entirely.  And then it dawned on me….there have been many doctors, surgeons, lawyers, judges, principals, professors, etc. which I had encountered in my life who obviously had never been diagnosed.   
    As it is, it’s unfortunate that our youth treats grade school, middle school and high school peers with such judgement and cruelty with typical students.  If you stand out in any way imaginable, you don’t stand a chance.  Our society masters in discrimination.  Until our culture can accept and embrace all individuals as human beings first and foremost and look past differences of race, color, creed, neurological, genetic, or social differences, the acceptance and ease of these difficult years will only exasperate with any one who acts or looks different.  Aspergers has an edge on the spectrum.  There is an intriguing uniqueness within this area that should be respected and marveled.  Can we try explaining that to grade, middle and high 
    school bullies?

  • Catherine Caldwell-Harris on 12.01.2012 at 2:02 pm

    So interesting! But could Asperger’s Are Us perform at BU or somewhere in Boston? I really want to see you guys! I could get the psych seminar room for your stage, perhaps at 5pm? or ask the BU pub? Let’s fine a way….

    • Noah on 12.06.2012 at 1:39 pm

      Hey Catherine,
      We’d love to do a show at BU. We’d need to get paid enough to make it worth our while, but are very interested. Please get in touch with us via our Facebook or email me. Thanks! -Noah

  • Anne Russell on 12.01.2012 at 5:39 pm

    My handsome, artistic, fully-masculine husband, now age 71, is Asperger’s. Took me a number of years to figure out what was going on with him. He does not like to maintain eye contact, dislikes being touched (except erotically), has difficulty expressing himself verbally, is ritualistic, quickly acts out in anger, does not read social cues. This has made it difficult for me to live with him, but the upside is he is predictable, dependable, a gifted architect and diligent vegetable gardener. I consider his temperament simply a version of normal on a behavioral spectrum, just as folks who are especially gregarious and highly verbal are towards the other end of the spectrum. Different strokes for different folks, and all God’s chillun got a place in the choir, some sing lower, some sing higher. I disapprove of drugging Asperger’s folks, especially children. Let them be who they are designed to be.

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