My life as performer with a learning difficulty

Guest post from Cian Binchy, a 25-year-old writer and performer from London who has autism. His one-man show, The Misfit Analysis, premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe festival last month.

If somebody asked me, ‘Can you describe autism?’ I would say that question doesn’t make sense. Everyone experiences autism in a different way, and at the end of the day, I can only really describe my own autism.

Cian, a young man wearing a Beatles T-shirt, on a London street
Cian in Dalston, London, last month

When you have Asperger’s syndrome, you are on the very, very able end of autism and in many ways you’re almost like everyone else. But there’s just something little in you that is stopping you, and singles you out from other people. It’s very frustrating.

People think if you’ve got ‘high functioning’ autism you can cope in any situation, and that’s not true at all. I’m always struggling.

I became a performer because I want to educate people about the struggles that people in my position go through.

I want to entertain people, but I also want to make them think. I want people to really experience some of my art and some of the stuff that goes through my mind – and for people to be a bit more understanding of the kind of issues that people with autism have.

My show at the Edinburgh Fringe

The Misfit Analysis is basically about the struggles that I’ve had with autism, particularly as a young adult between 16 and 20 – not having much luck with going to colleges or getting work; failing to have a relationship.

It’s not really a straightforward play; it’s more of a performance, if that makes sense. There is audience participation, there are some videos, but predominantly it is a one-man show.

It’s humorous. It’s dark. It’s a bit twisted. It’s unorthodox. It’s funny. It’s a bit sad. It’s a bit scary. It’s educational. It’s thought-provoking. And it’s all based on my own experiences.

You’re either going to be laughing your head off or be freaked out!

I hope it’ll help people learn that autism is quite unpredictable and complicated, and that you can never be an expert on autism. I would like them to do a bit of research on autism and maybe get more involved in it – and take autism out of the ghetto, bring it into the mainstream.

Because a performer with a learning difficulty, I am in a minority within a minority. There are many disabled performers, but hardly any that actually have a learning difficulty.

Disabled people in the arts

Unfortunately, the performance art world is a very tough place for anyone, especially people with learning difficulties.

Cian sitting on the floor next to a wheelchair, holding a toy windmill and a tragedy mask
Cian in a promotional shot for The Misfit Analysis

I was a consultant on The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time at the National Theatre, basically teaching the lead actor, Luke Treadaway, how to behave like someone who is autistic.

He was really good, but the sad thing is that often people who actually have got autism don’t really get a chance to perform. They don’t get a chance to go to a decent drama school; they don’t get the right education for that kind of performance. I actually wasn’t even getting paid for doing this work.

Whereas when you see me perform, it’s real. In my show I am actually performing my own disability – so when you see me, and when you see the kind of stuff I do, like spinning a tin opener, it’s real. It’s not just an act.

Cian is working with Access All Areas, a theatre company which produces work by disabled artists. Read a review of his show in the Guardian here.

Yep, my brain’s not normal… I’m in Mensa – #EndTheAwkward

Sheena smiling at camera in the countryside

A chance encounter with a bullying ex-boss, gave Sheena the opportunity to challenge his definition of ‘normal.’

Sheena, who has Asperger’s syndrome and fibromyalgia, shares her awkward moments in support of our End the Awkward campaign.

In the early 1990s I had a manager who I got on with in many ways but who would delight in telling me, in front of other staff, that I was ‘weird’, ‘abnormal’ and that my brain didn’t work like a ‘normal’ person’s.

This was before the Disability Discrimination Act and the Equality Act gave disabled people more power to challenge discrimination. I felt powerless to do anything about his behaviour.

After a few years, I was moved to another building within the same organisation so I no longer had to suffer his torments.

In 2004, I found out I had dyslexia. It was a revelation. Because I couldn’t spell, I would stumble when reading certain words, and mix up words when speaking. I thought I really wasn’t very intelligent, despite getting through university.

But the dyslexia diagnosis debunked that myth. It gave me the courage to apply for membership to a certain well known organisation for people with high IQs. I was accepted and so was my son.

Revenge – a dish best served cold

Fast forward to the summer of 2006 and after leaving work one evening, I bumped into my ex-manager, the one who said I was ‘abnormal.’

Now they do say revenge is a dish best served cold and I’d waited a long time for this opportunity, so I called out to him in greeting and after exchanging pleasantries, the conversation went like this:

Me (as if an afterthought): “Oh, by the way, you’ve not heard which society my son and I were invited to join… well, actually we were ‘cordially invited’ to join, have you?”

Him (warily): “No…. which society?”

Me: Mensa.

Him (with a rictus smile on his face): “Congratulations.”

Me (playfully punching him on his arm, my voice bright and breezy): “You see, you were right all those years ago – my brain really doesn’t work like a ‘normal’ person’s.

And with that I walked away, floating on air, without a backward glance.

“Can you pass me that, please?”

I was in a sports shop and needed something from a top rail that I couldn’t reach from my wheelchair. The first member of staff who happened by was the store manager. I asked him if he could pass it to me: he said, “Of course, but where is your carer?” I replied: “They do let us out on our own sometimes you know!”

“Poor you”

I’d reverse parked into the designated spot on a bus. The elderly lady sitting opposite me said in a voice loud enough to be heard by the entire length of the bus, “poor you, fancy being in a wheelchair at your age.” The man sitting next to her, her son I assume, looked mortified. I responded in an equally loud voice: “Not at all, I have the disability anyway; having the chair has given me back my freedom. Without it, I’d be housebound.”

She then apologised and said she hadn’t thought about it like that. Incidentally the entire bus had looked shocked at what she said, and I got nods of approval and smiles. I didn’t take it to heart, she said it without thinking and there was a compliment in there somewhere – I was over 40 at the time and hardly a whipper-snapper!

Magic moments

It’s important to mention positive moments as well as awkward ones. I’d like to share a couple with you here.

At Christmas, I used to decorate my wheelchair with tinsel round the spokes and lights around the arms and side panels.

Waiting at the bus stop one evening in the dark, I heard a man’s voice behind me – he was talking to a child. “Look at all the pretty tinsel. Can you see it, isn’t it pretty? And look at the lights around the arms.” I started to turn them on and off to make them flash. “Look they’re flashing now, aren’t they pretty?”

I didn’t say anything, but did turn round and grin at the man who smiled back. It was wonderful that he had taken time out to show my decorated chair to his son. Hopefully with parenting like that, his son will grow up to be totally accepting of disability.

On another occasion, I wheeled past the entrance to a long drive way that had a big arch at the end. As I was going past, a teenage girl dressed as a goth was coming down the drive through the arch and so saw my chair side-on, “Wow that’s one cool chair,” she said. I grinned and thanked her.

Do you have an awkward story to share? Submit your awkward stories, and we’ll publish our favourites on our blog and social media.

Find out more about how Scope is ending the awkward this summer.