(This was also published by the Indian news site WSN)
She trains professionals – care workers, doctors, psychiatrists, foster carers, teachers – who have to deal with autistic people.
“And when you were a kid?” I asked her yesterday.
“Council house kid,” she said. “Scholarship. Private school. Croydon. Left at 16. Went to live in squats. For years and years, I was a squatter. Squatting in London in the early 1980s, as soon as I left school. Dropped out completely. Punk. Got pregnant. Lived in a van with my daughter. Dreadlocks. Dog on string. Travelling around a bit. Moved to Devon. I’ve only looked sensible in the last ten years. I’m a bit of a late starter.”
“And you have Tourette’s Syndrome,” I said.
“Yes,” Sarah said. “Facial ticks. Eye ticks. I used to blink around 100 times per minute. Now I have Botox injections around the eyes on the NHS – I get free Botox, which is what every middle-aged woman wants, isn’t it? But it’s a horrible, horrible process.”
“And you’re an international expert on autism,” I said.
“Apparently so,” said Sarah.
“Because…?” I asked.
“Because I’ve written books, I guess,” she replied. “And because not that many people know that much about it.”
“You’re autistic yourself?” I asked.
“Yes. The only people who really understand it are people with it, because it’s about a different neurology. Even people who are married to it don’t really understand it, because it’s a whole different way of seeing the world. It’s all about cognitive processing. It’s much easier to have set rules about something. There’s no grey. Everything’s black and white, because that makes your life easier and calmer. The logic is not necessarily perfect logic, but it’s your own logic. There’s always a logic; it may be a flawed or a skewed logic, but it’s not random thinking. You can’t make judgments very well, because judgments are grey.”
“But isn’t the whole thing about performing comedy that you can suddenly take off on a flight of fantasy?” I asked.
“Not my comedy,” said Sarah. “Because I have no imagination. I don’t get the surreal humour. The Mighty Boosh. I don’t get that at all. Oh I have a fish and you have binoculars! Really? Why is that funny? My comedy is all true.”
“There was research on stand-up comics a few years ago,” Sarah told me, “which found many were quite unusual in standard personality-type profiles. They might be extrovert on the stage but, in their personal lives, they were socially awkward.”
“I’ve found with quite a few of the comedians I’ve tried to help,” I said, “that they’re extrovert on stage but do they want to publicise themselves? No they bleeding don’t. They want to hide in a cave rather than be interviewed.”
“Well,” said Sarah, “you stick me in a networking event or a party… I’ve been to autism events as a speaker and I’m the one out of 300 people who’s hiding round the corner because I just can’t bear to be visible.”
“So how can shy people who want to hide away be comedians?” I asked.
“Because,” explained Sarah, “they stand in front of people with a microphone, a script, a set period of time to talk and a plan of what they’re going to talk about and, when they’ve had enough, they get off. It’s not a two-way dialogue. It’s not socialising.
“My experience of the comedy circuit is it’s like a special interest group. Most people aren’t the traditional type of friends. We turn up and say Done any gigs lately? How you gettin’ on? What you doin’ next week? There’s very few other comedians, for example, who know the names of my children or what I do for a living or where I’m going on holiday – which is my understanding of what friendship is supposed to be about. But that suits me fine.
“I think the comedy circuit includes a whole bunch of people who don’t have many ordinary friendships – we are, after all, people who are happy to spend all their weekend evenings away from their loved ones, driving round the country by themselves. That totally fits autism or, at least, it’s a lifestyle that suits someone like me very well.
“To me,” Sarah continued, “comedy is a puzzle. It’s like a scientific experiment. These are the words. This is my material. Did it work? Feedback from the audience tells me whether it did or not. If it didn’t, I go away and try to work out why and try to fix it. To me it’s a system. Trying to write the perfect joke, the perfect set, trying to analyse it. It’s all about analysing it. I never go home and worry about having had a bad gig, because it’s nothing to do with ‘me’, it’s to do with ‘that’ which I’ve created. I am separate from ‘that’.”
“So,” I asked, “if you get a bad audience reaction, it’s not a personal rejection, it’s a rejection of the product you created?”
“Yes,” agreed Sarah, “it’s like baking a cake and it didn’t taste very nice. I don’t have any emotion in it at all.”
“So why did you want to be a comedian in the first place?”
“Oh,” said Sarah, “that’s a long story about wanting to be an actor as a child. I got pregnant at 18. I got a place to do Drama at Exeter. I got down there with my daughter aged three. I realised that drama courses and three year olds do not go together. I couldn’t do the course and that was the end of that.”
“So you were a frustrated performer?”
“Very much so. Now I’ve got a 25-year-old daughter and two grand-children and a 16-year-old son who lives at home. When my son got to the point where he was able to be left on his own, I took myself off and started doing a bit of comedy.”
“And now you’re preparing to do your first solo Edinburgh Fringe show in August,” I prompted.
“Yes. It’s called Time Traveller.”
“It’s about going back into my own past to an event which happened to me about twelve years ago. It was a pretty unfortunate time of my life. I was camping in Spain with my now ex-husband and kids. My mum had just died. I went up the Sagrada Família in Barcelona, had a giant panic attack, got agoraphobia, got relatively disabled by that though not house-bound.
So it’s kind of going back through that and saying Well, I was always a bit of an anxious kid and a bit of an odd kid. This thing happened. It all got worse. Stuff about my marriage. Stuff about my kids. Then this moment of clarity where I decide what I need to do is go back to Barcelona and sort all this shit out. And then I decide to go by bicycle.”
“And you are actually doing that?”
“Yes. I’m going to cycle to Barcelona at the end of May.”
“How far is it?”
“Have you done something like that before?”
“And you’ve decided to do it, because…”
“I’m having a mid-life crisis. I’m just scared of everything. That’s the general premise. I need an adventure. I bought my bicycle off eBay. It’s called Gérard, after Gérard Depardieu. And I’ve written a song for the show.”
“You can play the guitar?” I asked.
“No,” said Sarah. “Playing the guitar when you can’t play the guitar is quite liberating.”
“I would pay to see this free show,” I said. “Have you practised for the bicycle ride by putting a scouring pad under your bottom and rubbing it backwards and forwards?”
“No. I haven’t even been on my bicycle for four months or so. I keep looking at my bicycle and thinking Ooh. I really should have a little go on it.”
“Will you be stopping at hotels along the way?”
“No. Camping. On my own.”
“Where will your camping equipment be?”
“Mmm…” I said.
“I know,” said Sarah. “It’s mad. I’ve never been camping on my own. I’m terrified. I’m terrified of everything. I’m terrified of being on my own. I’m an absolute weed. This is for the Edinburgh Fringe show but it is also because… well, I have been a mum since I was 19, my kids are now grown-up. This is genuinely a mid-life crisis. It’s the first time I’ve had the chance to do anything like this in my life, really.”