Asperger's makes stand-up easier than office work

Holding a keyboard Image copyright Stephanie Miller

A man with Asperger's syndrome finds being a professional stand-up comic easier than any office job. Why?

Robert White had 67 jobs in seven years and kept getting fired due to his often very literal interpretation of life, born of having Asperger's syndrome.

"A team leader in one call-centre where I worked had a list of rules on everything," he says. "It didn't specifically say that I was not allowed to wear a Gareth Gates' mask. So I made one from a magazine and wore it for three hours." He was asked to leave.

Now a stand-up comedian, White is happier and says it's far easier to understand than an average office situation. He says: "On stage, I can make jokes in the context of making jokes. Saying the same things at work was perceived as a misunderstanding of the social situation and seen as inappropriate."

In promotional material, White calls himself an Asperger's, gay, dyslexic, cross-lateral, web-toed, ex-con, musical comedian. "Cross-lateral" means that unusually, his dominant eye is on the opposite side of his body to his dominant hand.

White's new Edinburgh Fringe show, The Curious Incident of the Gag and the Gun-Crime, is a play on the title of the popular book about a teenager with Asperger's but also refers to an incident that landed him in prison for three months.

The explanation of how he found himself in prison is characteristically complicated. When a relationship ended he admits his actions were not standard ones. "A normal person would get very drunk but, because I have Asperger's, I decided to play a practical joke which got misconstrued by the police..."

He won't go into detail about what happened for fear of giving away too much about his Fringe show but says: "Prison was easier for me than for a lot of people because I'm someone who exists in my head, while many people [in prison] are very physically active."

While on remand, White became depressed and composed music in his mind to "heal" himself. "There wasn't any proper paper and pens to write it down with, so I started spreading toothpaste over newspapers and pulled my fingers through it to write notes," he says. This led to a spell in the psychiatric wing and the assessment which gave him the belated Asperger's diagnosis.

White's comedy is an energetic and unpredictable mix of audience participation, improvised songs with keyboard accompaniment, and groan-worthy one-liners with wordplay such as: "My present boyfriend is unusual, because it is unusual to get a partner as a gift."

Before each show he prepares himself to counteract the natural Asperger's syndrome responses he might have when on stage.

"I write things on my hand to remind myself how I should be - to program in aspects of social interactions," White says. "On one finger I put, 'just do, keep on', because it is very tempting to melt down or even shut down if something difficult occurs.

"On another finger I write 'groan' to remind myself that the audience groaning is not always a negative thing. They might be doing the pantomime thing and actually enjoying it."

*Robert White's the Curious Incident of the Gag and the Gun-Crime… Plus More Stuff! is at Heroes at the Hive as part of the Festival Fringe in Edinburgh.

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