Aspergers Are Us: an interesting documentary

I just watched a documentary called Apergers Are Us which I enjoyed. I have a family member who is diagnosed as being on this spectrum. My wife says she thinks I am, too, but my therapist disagrees. Since he has the medical degree, I go with his diagnoses even though my wife is super-intelligent and rarely wrong. I make it a habit to never disagree with her unless I am very certain I am right. In this case, I am very certain my therapist is right.

I must add that this digression probably bolsters my wife’s argument. But, really, it’s not a digression. It may help to understand my interest in the documentary. I’d like to understand my family member better and the fact that my wife thinks I am on the spectrum means I am interested in it to see why she thinks that.

But, back to the documentary. This is a film about four young men who are autistic and formed a sketch comedy troupe. If you’re unfamiliar, Asperger syndrome is a kind of autism. It’s part of the autism spectrum.

As a pervasive developmental disorder, Asperger syndrome is distinguished by a pattern of symptoms rather than a single symptom. It is characterized by qualitative impairment in social interaction, by stereotyped and restricted patterns of behavior, activities and interests, and by no clinically significant delay in cognitive development or general delay in language.[31] Intense preoccupation with a narrow subject, one-sided verbosity, restricted prosody, and physical clumsiness are typical of the condition, but are not required for diagnosis. –Wikipedia

All of that being said, this is not a documentary about Asperger syndrome, or even autism. It is about some guys who are on the spectrum, that is, they have Asperger syndrome to one degree or another. And, they perform sketch comedy. The documentary is centered on how they are preparing for a “final show.” It turns out it was not their actual final show because if you go their website, you will see that they are still performing. That doesn’t detract from the documentary, to me, though. I rather enjoyed it because, ultimately, it’s a glimpse into the lives of these four men. And, it tells us something about how they think and interact with the world.

A quote from their website gives some insight:

We’re the first comedy troupe composed of autistic people. We’ve performed original absurdist and satirical sketches since 2010. We do not poke fun at Asperger’s and we did not form to prove that autistic people can be funny. We formed for the same reason anyone does comedy: To make you laugh! Please do not expect us to be anything like The Big Bang Theory or anything else that relies on making fun of people. Expect silly deadpan sketches that appeal to Aspies and sympathetic others alike. 

In much the same way, the documentary isn’t about Asperger’s and it’s not trying to prove they are funny. But, I think it does want you to understand these men and get an idea for how they think. Like any good film, especially documentaries, it’s about the people, not the topic.

One of the men, Noah, is both autistic and a counselor, or teacher, I’m not very clear about that, for other autistic/Asperger’s people. I wasn’t unfamiliar with Asperger’s in general prior to this. But, I enjoyed seeing how he worked with the other three. For example, he talks to a young boy who is clearly autistic, most likely Asperger’s, and notes how the boy covers his ears so he can keep reading without Noah talking to him. He just accepts this. Of course, being Asperger’s himself, he continues trying to talk to the boy. But, he accepts the boy’s fixation on the train schedule. Later in their show, there is a sketch about “train schedule man” whose super power is knowing all of the train schedules and always being able to produce a train schedule on demand. A dubious super power, and funny. And, one can see where it came from.

Acceptance. It’s something that keeps up for me. In this case, accepting people for how they are without needing to change them or judge them. In another instance, New Michael (That’s his name. New Michael. When he was 18, he changed his name from “Aaron” to “New Michael.” That’s what he wanted to be called and what people call him.) is having a hard time dealing with rehearsal because they are at his house and his sister is home. He feels self-conscious about rehearsing with her around. He gets overwhelmed and has to leave. Noah accepts it. He doesn’t get angry. It just is the way things are.

It’s a very interesting way to think about life in general. What if we could all just accept each other? I realize we still need norms for how to interact. Society should still have rules. But, at the same time, maybe it would be a better world if we didn’t get so bent out of shape when people didn’t conform to those norms. I don’t know. It’s just something I’m thinking about. As a teacher, I am often confronted with situations where students don’t conform to how I think they should behave. On some level, it’s my job to teach them to conform to those norms. In a way, that’s what grammar is all about. It’s a set of rules we use to make sure everyone can understand us. And, yet, I believe that those who study semiotics would say that grammar doesn’t really matter as long as people understand what you say. I understand that point of view, but at the same time, I think it’s fair to make a judgment about people who don’t use grammar correctly. Carelessness or a lack of education both tell you something about someone.

While a grammarian and semiotician debate might be entertaining, at least on some level, and maybe to a few people (two or three, certainly), it really isn’t the subject of this post. Some of the acceptance has to come from understanding. When you understand that a kid on the autistic spectrum might get overwhelmed sometimes, and might need a break, then you don’t have to get so angry about it. It seems to me that many people get very angry when others don’t conform to their ideas of how to behave, or think.

Maybe I’m too romantic or optimistic. I’m not naive, though, that’s for sure. But, it seems to me that most people are trying to do the right thing, or at very least, do what is beneficial to themselves. There are people, of course, that are broken, and they are the kind of people that hurt others. I think they are more rare, though. Most might hurt someone in the course of trying to do what they need to do, thinking it is what is best. But, they aren’t trying to hurt someone on purpose. The key is to see what people want, what they are trying to do, not necessarily what the outcome is. If you can see what people want, it makes them more relatable, more human.

When you can understand how people think, you can see them for who they are. And, this was the interesting thing about the documentary to me. Being able to see, for example, that Asperger’s makes someone self-centered because that’s just how they are, how their brain works, and not some defect of character, gives you the ability to be less judgmental and more empathetic. And, interestingly, Noah seems to have developed some empathy for others. He recognizes when others need some space or are indulging in their specific interests (A characteristic of Asperger’s is having a deep interest in topics that might be unusual; for example, as seen in the film, trains and their schedules.). To me, I would think it was rude for someone to just have to leave, or to ignore me while reading something. But, it might not be their intention to be rude.

In any case, I appreciated the opportunity to learn something about the four guys in the film. Even if you don’t know someone with Asperger’s or autism, or who is “on the spectrum” then you still might find worth watching. I think it’s a good film in it’s own right.

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