Treating Autism with Improv Comedy

I'm autistic. I have Asperger's Syndrome. When I use these words I'm referring to a cluster of correlated traits.

Here's an example of me taking things too literally.

Driver: "Watch the map."

Me: "Okay."

[An hour passes.]

Driver: "When are we supposed to turn?"

Me: "Fifteen minutes ago."

Driver: "Why didn't you tell me?"

Me: "I thought you knew what you were doing."

Steven Byrnes has a theory that autism is caused by cranking up the gain on a human brain's sensory inputs. I don't know about the neural underpinnings, but the idea that autism happens equals an intense subjective reality—from sounds to colors to the presence of other people—rings true for me.

I hosted a GPT-3 party (after I got access to GPT-3 but before OpenAI made it publicly available). It was as silent as a library even though my living room was packed. Every chair and couch in my house had a guest's butt in it. As the host, I sat in the stairwell.

When my friend Justin arrived at my house with the blinds drawn and the lights off he thought it was the wrong address. I let him in and he quietly fit himself in between a medical student and a hacker who had invented an exploit that jailbroke the Windows Phone.

I tried to put Justin at ease.

"It's okay to make a little noise if you want," I whispered to Justin.

"What you call 'noise' I call 'conversation'," said Justin.

I once programmed for a company with an open office. I sat at a long desk with people to my left, right and front who frequently spoke to each other. It was like working in "a paint factory where the air is full of soot".

When the World Cup came around they used a big projector to display it on the wall. They cranked the sound way up. Whenever a goal was scored the entire company would jump and cheer. I unplugged my laptop and worked on the dirty floor of the hallway outside. I could still hear the cheering through the wall behind me, but it was a worthwhile trade.

The company's CTO later forbid me from working from home.

The sensory abnormalities are the least bad part of being autistic. The most bad part is the lack of social intuition. I am missing many social instincts.

"I figure what happens as a consequence, at least sometimes, is: the person with autism gradually learns to interact with and understand people, but without using empathetic simulation. Instead, they just take their general intelligence, and leverage it to build a new human model from the ground up, just as people can model any complicated system from the ground up (e.g. a complicated piece of software). So there's still a human model, but it's built on a different foundation—a foundation without that strong innate connection to brainstem circuits." ―The Intense World Theory of Autism by Steven Byrnes

Yup. I did so deliberately. For two years, starting at age eighteen, I read book after book about anthropology, evolutionary biology, history, business and economics. I read hundreds of articles about psychology on Science Daily. Eventually, it was enough to reverse engineer human behavior from first principles. I "build a new human model from the ground up…on a different foundation".

Reverse engineering normal human behavior was a major milestone for me, but it wasn't enough. Practicing the art of conversation while autistic is like practicing a musical instrument while deaf. I had learned physics and acoustics. I could generate 256 Hz on a sinusoidal wave generator, but I couldn't Jazz.

Playing Chess in a Mosh Pit

Interacting with new people is like playing chess because my social models are built from scratch out of $g$. Navigating an unstructured social gathering is like attending a heavy metal concert because of my sensory inputs are screwed up. Meeting people in an unstructured social gathering is like playing chess in a mosh pit.

I am good at playing characters. I give great speeches. I can sell products all day long. Predictable structured social interactions are fine. But when a stranger suddenly starts flirting with me it takes me a long time to task switch. By the time I do, the window of opportunity has passed.

I'm good at playing characters. I'm bad at switching between them. I needed practice meeting new people under new circumstances and then quickly adjusting to play my appropriate role over and over again.

Improvisational comedy is 150% improvisation and -50% comedy. Trying to be funny doesn't work. If you create a good story then the comedy will emerge naturally.

At a party or dancing I might play five new roles over the course in an evening. In an improv comedy I take on that many new roles in a single minute. Improv comedy is all the hardest parts (for me) of a social interaction cranked up 100×.

Here's one of the warm-up exercises we did. It involves three people: Alice, Bob and Charlie.

Suppose you're Bob. Whenever someone [Alice] says "lake" that you should point to Charlie and say "river". Whenever Charlie says "Sarah Connor" you must say "Hermione Granger" and walk toward wherever Alice is. Alice is constantly moving.

The above example has two rules and three people. In my improv class, we used three rules and nine people.

It was overwhelming at first. My high-level cognition stopped functioning about sixty minutes into the ninety minute hour lesson. My hands twitched and shook. It took me most of the next day to recover. It wasn't just classes which caused meltdowns. Just watching other improvisers perform for an hour in the audience gave me a meltdown. (I didn't tell anyone what was going on in my head. I don't think they even noticed.)

I wasn't sure if meltdowns were something I could condition myself out of. I worried they might be biologically hardwired. But after seven lessons (about fourteen hours total) over the course of two and a half months, I went through an entire two-hour lesson without having a meltdown. I would be surprised if things did not continue to get easier.

Will the skills transfer more broadly to other social contexts? I think so. I have already noticed the skills (and lack of meltdowns) transferring to other social contexts.