Last week I was invited to perform at the launch of the ‘Embracing the Difference Foundation’ – an organisation founded to support people on the Autism Spectrum including those with Aspergers. The founders, Dr Julie and John Peterson, had heard about my Aspycadabra show and asked me to fly up to Sydney and speak about my life with Asperger’s and do a selection from the show.
I thought long and hard about which piece I’d like to do as I really wanted it to make an impact on many different levels but I had no idea just how strong that impact would end up being!
I decided on a routine where I have a volunteer assist me in a card trick, but I don’t say a word and they have to really think hard to try to follow my actions and do what I need them to do to help bring the trick to a successful outcome. The subtext is that I’m giving them a small taste of what it’s like being an Aspy dealing with people in a normal, neurotypical social situation.
You see most Aspies can’t pick up on body language, nuances, and – quite often – sarcasm. If we talk non-stop about our special interest and a person at a party says… “Hmmm… that’s very interesting.” while edging away from the group, we don’t get the subtle message that they’ve had enough. We take them at their word and think they’re loving what we’re saying and go on… and on… and on.
As a consequence, at parties, when someone says something to us, we process the literal meaning of what they said, then about a dozen alternates of what they really might have meant, and we try to calculate the correct one. Neurotypicals usually do this automatically and naturally, but to Aspies it can be exhausting.
So I decided to change the routine a tiny bit to make it even more like the Aspie experience by adding random sentences to the routine, that have nothing to do with the act, that the volunteer must first ignore, then figure out by my actions what I really want them to do.
So, routine designed and it was showtime. After a brief introduction about my life I asked for a volunteer, specifically someone who was NOT on the Spectrum so they could get the full experience.
Nobody raised their hand so one of the organisers volunteered herself and came up on to the stage.
I explained the premise and began by shaking her hand and saying “Thankyou. You can go back to your seat now.”
She stayed. I congratulated her on passing the first test and we began.
I opened my case and mimed taking a small object out and handed it to her saying “While I was driving here, I ran over a possum and squashed it.”
She took to object and feigned disgust.
I said “No. That’s actually a deck of cards. You need to ignore what I’m saying, and concentrate on what I’m doing.”
“It was a good day weather wise today.” I said as I mimed shuffling cards.
“Do you want me to shuffle the cards?” she asked. I nodded and she began shuffling the invisible deck.
I took it back from her and mimed opening the box “You’ll need to take the cards out of the box first.”
She smiled, took the invisible cards back and shuffled wildly.
“The drinks are very cheap here today. In fact some are even free.” I said as I mimed lining up invisible cards in the air.
She looked very confused so I explained “Here are the cards: Ace, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, Jack, Queen, King. You can choose any card.”
I took out an invisible envelope saying “Here I have a banana”… she tried to eat it… I corrected her and I could tell she really was starting to feel the stress Aspies experience when we attend social gatherings and struggle to keep up.
As the routine progressed, she put the card in the envelope and wrote a number on the invisible envelope with an invisible pencil. Then it was placed into a real (empty) envelope.
I explained “Everything that has happened so far has been in our imaginations. Now it’s time to bring it into reality.” I opened the envelope and showed her there really was a smaller envelope inside. She looked quite stunned.
I explained that this could be just any enveloped, that’s why I had her write on hers. She told me she wrote ‘2’ on hers… I showed her that ‘2’ was written on that envelope.
She started shaking.
I asked what the card was that she chose to put inside the envelope. She said “The Jack of Diamonds”. I opened the envelope and as soon as she saw just the indez of the Jack of Diamonds emerge she screamed and collapsed on the floor.
Now I was stunned.
The audience laughed for a moment, thinking she was just playing up, but then an awkward silence filled the room as people rushed to her aid and everyone realised she really had fainted.
After a few moments and a glass of water, she was alright, just very embarrassed as she had never fainted before in her life.
Speaking to her afterwards she said she was finding it very hard to both ignore what I was saying and interpret what I wanted her to do as she really wanted the act to be a big success. So there was a fair degree of stress generated. When she saw the number on the envelope, I don’t think she was prepared for such a powerful magic moment and when she saw HER card she said she just saw stars and collapsed.
As hard to comprehend as it may be to neurotypicals, this isn’t very different to my own personal Aspy experience at parties. I have been out socially and been asked a few simple questions while a loud band was playing and lights were flashing around me, and I almost became comatose. Simply incapable of processing what was going on and unable to respond. It’s known as sensory overload.
I had never intended to give such a dramatic recreation of the experience on stage but it is truly astonishing to look at our routines and effects in the new light of this reaction.
Once you go beyond the standard patter presentations and express your own world view through your magic – anything is possible.