Neurodiversity in Comedy

Neurodiversity is having a moment on the comedy scene. We speak to several neurodiverse comics from across the UK to ask if the changes we're currently seeing may herald genuine change in the wider cultural sphere

Feature by Emma Sullivan | 08 Jul 2021
  • Neurodiversity in Comedy

With several high-profile comedians recently revealing their neurodiversities (Josie Long discussing ADHD and Fern Brady and Hannah Gadsby both sharing their autism diagnoses among others) there’s an increasing sense that neurodiversity is becoming both more visible, and more freely acknowledged within the comedy scene. Tired tropes about neurodiversity still dominate the culture at large – with autism in particular a target for cheap laughs – yet comedy is a place in which marginalised groups can freely address mainstream preconceptions.

For Scottish comedian Ross Leslie, who was diagnosed with autism in 2014 and has long been open about his experiences, “a lot has changed in the last ten years.” Kate Fox, whose work straddles both stand-up and performance poetry, says that even in 2019, her autism diagnosis was met with disinterest during discussions with producers. Starting in 2020, however, the same people recognised that “it was something with wider appeal and interest”.

Stand-up Joe Wells agrees: “You can date what you read almost to the year by the way the conversation has changed. Not just comedy – there were so many books last year written by neurodivergent writers.” But he’s quick to point out that “there’s always a risk of transience with social movements. Last summer everyone was passionately anti-racist. Anyone who’s not directly invested in it moves on.” Don Biswas, who has dyspraxia, echoes this, and argues that the gains won’t be permanent until the issue is embedded in the curriculum.

Ashley Storrie, meanwhile, is arguably at the forefront of this new wave of visibility. Starring as a young autistic woman in her new BBC Three pilot, Dinosaur, she’s very aware of the historical lack of representation around neurodiversity. She describes hungrily scouring pop culture growing up, looking for characters she could relate to. As a teenager she loved the Fox series Bones, whose eponymous lead Storrie was sure was autistic. Although it’s never explicitly mentioned, “she struggles with emotions, she’s very interested in one subject and nothing else.” Another touchstone was Abed Nadir in Community, who has similar traits. The hope is that Nina, Storrie’s character in Dinosaur, will, like Abed, get the chance to develop over the space of a series. 

Storrie describes the experience of playing the character as hugely liberating. Nina is undiagnosed, and lives her life without attempting to mask her autism. Inhabiting the character’s total lack of apology was a revelation – “it switched a switch in my brain” – and made her realise that “maybe I wouldn’t be so anxious and tired all the time if I weren’t constantly living to please other people”. Storrie recognises the circularity of the process (“a snake eating its own tail”) where effective masking results in disbelief when you do acknowledge your diagnosis. The familiar notion that “you don’t act like an autistic person – why are you lying?” can trap someone further into the exhausting business of “pretending to be normal”. 

For Joe Wells, the aim is to get beyond the valorisation of ‘normal’, and instead move towards a genuine celebration of difference. He mentions a post-show discussion with a parent of an autistic child, who felt it was important the child was reassured ‘he was normal’, but Wells disagreed: “He’s not normal – it’s not important to be normal. Being normal is not inherently better”. The problem remains that the dominant social attitude to neurodiversity is that “it’s a bad, debilitating illness; a tragedy even”, and when parents say that they’ve got an autistic child, the standard response is still commiseration. Parents are expected to mourn the loss of something – it’s seen as a form of ‘bereavement’, a mindset that is obviously very damaging for neurodivergent children. Wells’ recent viral video models the overturning of this value system beautifully, deftly reversing the usual tropes of patronising pity so that they are directed instead at neurotypicals. There’s subversion, too, in his opening gambit as he casually identifies himself as autistic and asks cheerily: “Got any Autistics in?”

It’s exactly this kind of casual naming that Kate Fox describes as so important in changing the dominant representations of autistic people, which so often tend to be medicalised and/or pathologising. In fact, given the emphasis upon “a lack of a sense of humour and absolute literalness” in such representations, the very competency of stand-ups who are open about their autism in their act is in itself subversive. As Fox points out, the word itself remains very problematic and almost toxic for many, and despite her reservations about the use of spectrum as a model (preferring to conceptualise it as a matter of dimensions, rather than a linear representation), she still uses the phrase ‘on the spectrum’ as a euphemism "because people can struggle with it so much”. 

If stand-up is a particularly effective place for showcasing neurodiversity, it’s also a space that seems to actively attract neurodivergent people. Don Biswas reckons those comedians who share their diagnoses are just the tip of the iceberg: “There are loads of undiagnosed neurodiverse comedians on the circuit”. Wells agrees, arguing that if the best comedians are those able to look at the world differently, then the oblique perspective brought by neurodivergence is a perfect fit. The fundamentals of stand-up work well with specific neurodivergent traits: “It’s a one-way conversation with very clear rules about things that interest the speaker; there’s complete leeway if you say something socially inappropriate,” and even if the venue is cramped and noisy, comedians often get a separate room so “you don’t feel drained and exhausted at the end of the night.” 

Fox’s account is similar: as a performer of monologues “you don’t have to negotiate conversations and transitions”. She thinks there can also be a kind of fearlessness, a resistance to certain norms which allows for greater freedom. Women, for example, “are supposed to have internalised that they shouldn’t speak out”, but often neurodiverse women and non-binary folk simply haven’t taken that internalisation on. Ross Leslie notices the universal appeal of the freedom from such norms, and some of his material invites the audience to vicariously enjoy that freedom. It’s still a risk though, as he describes one gig where he was scolded afterwards for joking ‘inappropriately’ about autism.

What about the responsibility that comes with having a public platform? It’s clear that it’s keenly felt by all. Storrie, in particular, says, “I feel very nervous and anxious about it.” She’s “super super aware that any form of neurodiversity has often been depicted as a burden” and that it’s her “job to change that”. The pressure to be ‘manic pixie autistic dream girl’ is quite intense, and not a role Storrie has any appetite for. “I want to be as true to my experience as possible and hope that rings true for other people. And that’s all you can do.” 

Wells also feels the pressure “to represent neurodiversity well” in his stand-up, and tries to avoid material “about how I get things wrong, how I say inappropriate things or I can’t cope” which are thought of as ‘wrong’, but shouldn’t be. He’s clear that there needs to be the space for many different perspectives, because “one story is not sufficient”, particularly given the ways in which social background comes into play.

Don Biswas picks up on the importance of social background when reflecting on his own experience, and the ways in which neurodiversity can be harder for those from “education obsessed, traditional cultures – with narrower criteria for success”.  Biswas also acknowledges that while his dyspraxia is “great for material”, he’s mindful of relying on it too heavily. As with jokes about his ethnicity, there’s a risk of playing to stereotype. Leslie admits to similar concerns, and with two sons with autism, he tries to protect his family from material that “gives too much away”. Meanwhile Kate Fox has fully embraced her role as a representative of the neurodiverse community. She’s an ambassador for the National Autistic Society and happy to step up at what she sees as “a historic time”. As a result she feels richly rewarded; she’s “part of a community, a movement, and a moment”.

Follow Don Biswas on Twitter, Instagram and Tiktok @donbiswascomedy and find him on YouTube

Dinosaur is available now on BBC iPlayer; The Ashley Storrie Show airs every Friday night on BBC Radio Scotland and BBC Sounds

Ross Leslie plays Glasgow Glee Club, 9 and 10 Jul (lockdown permitting); follow Ross on Twitter at @RossLeslieComic

Follow Kate Fox on Twitter @katefoxwriter /

Follow Joe Wells on Twitter and Facebook @joewellscomic and on Instagram @joewellscomedian. Joe's book, Differently Wired: 30 Neurodivergent people who you should know, is due for release in Spring 2022