My Son’s Not Rainman: Is Laughing About Being Different a Good Thing?
On Monday night I went to see a show called ‘My Son’s Not Rainman’ by comedian John Williams, and father of a young boy with autism. I wasn’t entirely sure what I was in for, and although I knew I had come to see a show about autism, I didn’t realise it was stand-up comedy until the lights went down…
As it dawned upon me that this was a comedian making ….err… jokes about …umm…. autism, a serious neurodevelopmental disorder that I spend most of my time trying to get to grips with, I felt quite awkward. But, by the time we got to the “Let’s trivialise a major brain disorder in 60 seconds” section of the show, where John proceeded to list a string of ‘interesting facts’ about autism and his son’s specific variant, I was sold! I found myself laughing my head off to John’s genuine and humorous perspective of living with even the most challenging aspects of autism. Somehow, John managed to turn the most non-PC material into hilarious, but sensitively true insights. And, the whole audience, mainly composed of family members of those with autism and people who work with autistic individuals, was laughing with me.
We heard about how his son uses a wheelchair to avoid becoming fatigued from his cerebral palsy, and how this lead to an interesting situation at mini-golf. We chuckled along to the tale of his son’s obsession with biting – people, objects, anything! – and how this particular pastime has led to a exclusion from a number of establishments, including a special school for children on the autistic spectrum (go figure!). We giggled about how his son’s inability to separate reality from fantasy resulted in a rather disappointing experience with an Omnitrix, but on the upside allowed he and his Dad to enjoy a ‘magical’ ride on the DLR instead of forking out for a ticket to Thorpe Park!
It felt safe to laugh, even when we were on very thin ice material wise. Why? Because we weren’t laughing at his son, or even at autism, we were laughing at how ridiculously how hard it is to be someone, or live with someone, who doesn’t understand the world around them, and how sometimes society makes it even harder.
There were tender moments too. John displayed an absolute and unconditional love for his son, and it became clear that his blog and comedy help him to keep strong for both of their sake’s. Making light of a bad situation is a form of coping mechanism. By making something normally dark and difficult to talk about funny you can also tell the truth, and make people listen and think. Laughing about it somehow makes it okay and breaks down those barriers, and allows for important messages to be sent.
Needless to say, this has been rattling around my thoughts ever since. And, I should point out that in general I don’t think laughing about disability is okay… Indeed for my very first blog post (https://leilajameel.wordpress.com/2013/03/14/the-modern-freak-show-our-obsession-with-the-weird-and-wonderful/), I discussed the problem of TV shows which feature disability becoming ‘entertainment’, and I questioned whether this is a form of modern freakshow.
I have since racked my brain, trying to justify why it is okay to laugh at the fine line John treads along this precarious balance. Not only does John have credibility, he does the show his way. He hopes to portray autism with its warts and all. Media depictions of autism tend to focus on the story of someone who struggles with social-communication, but who like Rainman can count cards in a casino, or from memory draw St Paul’s cathedral in minute and accurate detail. Now, whilst there are people on the autistic spectrum with savant skills, this is a minority, and autism is just that – a spectrum, with every variant imaginable, and unimaginable too!
John’s blog – http://www.mysonsnotrainman.com/blog.html
Follow John on Twitter – @Autistic_Kid
John will be performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, 1 August – 25th August, and is planning more UK dates!