Noah Britton is most famous for co-founding the first comedy troupe composed entirely of people with Asperger's, Asperger's Are Us. He also performs music by himself and with the band The Best Thing Ever. In 2012 he was named as a public member of the federal government's Interagency Autism Coordination Committee. In his spare time, he is a psychology professor in Boston, MA.
The first part of our conversation is here.
Landon: What about Aspergers and music? How does that relate?
Noah: It’s harder for me as an aspie musician to get a career going, because the thing that everybody likes the most is totally removed from what I do. As my dad would say when he would be doing product tests for Procter & Gamble, “When you’re testing out which butterscotch flavor is the best, you have to first find the people who hate vanilla, or else everything you give them is going to be judged on how similar it is to vanilla.” And my music I think it going to be really, really appealing to a narrow range of people who like pop music and who also like the stuff that I’m good at, which I don’t think is the Aspergers, which is storytelling and simplicity.
I kind of wish I had been given the chance to play drums or something when I was young because I have phenomenally great timing. I have bad coordination, and I’m incapable of creating what’s called a groove. When I play drums, I play based on each beat separately. But what I’m terrible at is if you say, “Just follow along with the music and feel it.” I can’t do that, so I’m really bad at backing someone up unless I know what I have to do from the beginning. I’ve played lead drums before where everyone has to follow that, and that I think that sounds really good, although it’s not the most popular thing I’ve done.
"An Amalgam of Many Extreme and Obvious Things"
And also—the natural imitative ability that I believe many of us have. I learned to sing by listening to Steven Merritt and thinking, “I can sound exactly like this person.” This was foolish of me, and this is a bad way to make music, but this was how I got started. I asked myself, “Okay, who are the best at each aspect of music? Well, Steven Merritt is the best singer, so I’ll sing like him. And Calvin Johnson’s the best dancer, so I’ll dance like him.” This made me an amalgam of many extreme and obvious things. If you do that, but you’re an amalgam of more general things, if you say, “I want to rip off Black Sabbath’s guitar riffs but also have the energy of Matchbox 20,” no one’s going to call you a poser. I was too specific, and this made a lot of people not respect my work. It took a long time for me to even recognize that I was doing this.
Landon: I think that all human beings construct themselves largely out of bits and pieces of the other people they encounter, but I think with us those pieces tend to be bigger. There is a relationship between the tendency some of us have to take on the traits of one person to the extent that it is kind of uncomfortable, and speaking in chunks of movie dialogue.
Noah: Yeah, I think scripting, echolalia, and imitating body language all have the same underlying drive. I don’t know what that is, and I don’t think anyone does, but I’ve puzzled over it quite a bit. Why is that soothing? Why is that appealing? We don’t really know. Maybe our hypersensitivity makes it easier for us to deal with something that is extremely different if we are similar to it.
Landon: But how original is anything, really? I’ve done a lot of performing, a lot in musical theater. I had a very similar experience early on with realizing I could do it exactly the way the guy on the record did it and really having to work against that tendency as a performer. One of the things I started doing early in my teens was trying to find different performances of the same material. So then I could see how one actor would do it, and then another, and then I would start to see original possibilities. But I also feel like I worked against that too much. That there were times I should have allowed it be just the way it was on the record. It would have been more fun for me. It would have been more satisfying for the audience. Am I really such a genius that every interpretive choice has to be original to me?
Noah: It is something to struggle with, because I was motivated by thinking “Who do I love the most in this field? I want to do what they’re doing.” But there are other artists, who are the truest artists, who say, “I have something that I want to express. The End.” And their inspiration doesn’t come externally; it comes internally. I think those are the people that get the most positive response, and deservedly so, but it is challenging to become one of those people when I have this overwhelming desire to imitate artists who I love. And as a student of music, it’s been really hard to separate myself from the stuff that I love.
Did you see Amanda Palmer’s cover of me? Yeah, Amanda Palmer covered me for Neil Gaiman at this huge show they did. I was pretty proud of that.
Noah: Yeah, her and I did a show together the night before, which was like the best show of my life. It was my biggest audience, and we did a couple of duets. It was an amazing experience getting to play my singalongs for a thousand people. And the next day she decided to cover me, which was pretty great. And Neil Gaiman tweeted about it because it was a pretty good performance.
Jeffrey Vogelsberg's wife has been arrested for helping him hide the body of his half-brother Matthew Graville:
Shannon L. Remus, 26, an Army private and military police officer, was charged in a criminal complaint Wednesday with being a party to hiding a corpse. The Dane County Sheriff's Office said Wednesday that detectives on Tuesday traveled to Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Wash., where Remus is stationed, and arrested her.
Vogelsberg pleaded not guilty to first degree murder yesterday:
A criminal complaint alleges that Vogelsberg, who moved to the state of Washington in July, beat Graville on June 30, ordered that his body be put into a freezer, and then helped bury him five days later. Robert McCumber, 29, who owns the house where Vogelsberg and Graville were living, also is charged with hiding a corpse.
Vogelsberg's mother Laura Robar will spend a year in jail for stealing Matthew's identity to use his food stamp benefits:
On Monday, the judge said that the serious nature of Robar's offense goes past just using the Quest card to purchase groceries.
"I believe that you knew Matthew was gone and he was not coming back," Judge Genovese said during the sentencing. "That is, for me, an aggravating factor. It does play into your character."
She also said Robar should have reported Graville's death.
Speaking to the court, Graville's mother, Vicki Graville, said her son was "taken from me by people who claim to care and love.
"I feel that Laura needs to pay and do the things that she has coming, because she was aware of what she'd done," Graville said. "She was fully aware, and yet she did nothing."
Let's clear up a common misconception:
I do not dislike the parents of autistic people. In truth, I have more friends who have autistic children than I do autistic friends who do not have children. And my closest friends in the autism community tend to be people who have kids, although I certainly have very good friends who don't. But because I'm 47 and I spent years as a classroom teacher, I often relate better to people who have kids. Because I'm interested in kids and I don't have them, I like being friends with people who do.
I learn a lot from those friends, and, even more often, they clarify for me things that I am on the verge of figuring out for myself.
Like how to learn about people, including those who have autism. Two of my friends who are mothers of autistic kids clarified for me just exactly how it is that we learn about each other.
It's painfully simple.
We ask, we share, and we listen.
That's what my friend Kerry did with her son Brady, who has Asperger's syndrome and is seven:
I asked Brady what was kindergarten like.
He said, don’t ask me that, ask me about a part of kindergarten.
I asked him, how was recess?
When I was at recess when I was 5, I did not like it. Kids were everywhere. It bothered me. I did not have a safe spot. I kind of just walked around. I kind of did not play many games I guess. I did not know where I belonged.
She asked, he shared, she listened.
That's how to learn about autistic people.
It's how to learn about people.
My friend Jess shared a part of her life that she has been quiet about up until now:
Just before I met the man who is now my husband, there was someone else in my life, someone wonderful, someone with whom I had a nearly electric connection, someone who was smart as a whip and funny as hell, someone who was talented and beautiful and who, in turn, made me feel talented and beautiful, too, someone who challenged me and made me think and feel and try new things, someone who pushed me to be a better version of myself, someone whom I adored, and someone with whom my life would have been -- from the outside, at least -- very, very different had time written a different script for us, because, depending on where we chose to live, we might not have had the right to marry, and because there might have been people in my life -- in our lives -- whose preconceived notions about love would have changed their opinion of me. I never had to live that. I have no idea what that really feels like, but only because time wrote a different script for me and the person with whom I ultimately fell in love for keeps happened to be a man.
It doesn't come up much, but there are moments. There are dropped pronouns in stories of my past. There are thoughts left without a voice. And then there are times when I am praised for being an ally to the gay community. It is in those moments that I feel the most like a fraud.
She goes on to explain how disclosing sexual orientation is related to disclosing autism.
And people have listened.
Other parents and autistic people have learned that the category "bisexual" can include someone we love (or includes another person we love).
Gay and bisexual people have learned that autistic people and their families face some of the same things we do.
And the world grows let a little less dark and a little more friendly.
That's the lesson for today.
Fort Worth Weekly staff writer Jimmy Fowler sees the DSM-5 committee's choice to eliminate the Asperger's syndrome diagnosis as a chance to denigrate the entire autism spectrum:
Asperger’s is now just plain old autism, a very real and unromantic condition that nobody wants to claim at a dinner party.
I hope you’re happy with yourselves. This is why you never get any nice clinical terms to play with, because you overuse them until they’re meaningless. Not since the Winona-Ryder-in-the-bug-house flick Girl, Interrupted popularized “borderline personality” has everyone secretly yearned for such a quick, simple, not-too-scary explanation for social awkwardness. Is your co-worker unfriendly? Calling him “just a little Asperger’s” made his rudeness easier to take. Is your significant other emotionally unavailable? A wistful pronouncement of “Asperger’s” made that coldness totally not her fault, and somehow potentially treatable, too.
Does he work in a reference to Adam Lanza?
What do you think?
Please contact editor Gayle Reaves and ask her to take this piece down. And maybe ask Mr. Fowler to talk to an autistic person.
The contact page for the paper is here.
Note: I have recently created an email list for people who want to be notified when I have action alerts like this. If you would like to be added, please send me a message here.
As I have heard calls for armed guards at elementary schools, I have remembered the sad story of Trevor Varinecz, a teenager with Aspergers who was shot fatally after attacking a school resource officer. A judge has approved a settlement of $175,000 to be paid to Trevor's parents:
The money – half for a wrongful death claim and the other half for the parents’ pain and suffering claim – will come from the S.C. Insurance Reserve Fund, a state agency that provides insurance to governmental entities. Although police and school officials agreed to the settlement, they are not admitting any wrongdoing, according to court documents.
Officer Marcus Rhodes was dismissed from the lawsuit.
Lawyer Ed Bell, who represented the family, said that only some of the changes that need to happen have been made:
The parents, Tom and Karen Varinecz, alleged in their lawsuit that police and school officials were negligent because they did not provide Rhodes with the proper training to handle emotionally disturbed children such as their son. Rhodes also was not properly equipped because he had no stun gun or pepper spray that would have allowed him to avoid using deadly force, according to the lawsuit. The only equipment Rhodes had during the attack, Bell said, was a baton and a gun.
Bell said resource officers in Horry County now are equipped with stun guns and pepper spray as a result of the Varinecz case, but he believes they still are not receiving proper training.
“If the parents had a magic wand and could go back to the day before, they would have loved to have had a resource officer who was trained to handle the emotional outburst of their child,” Bell told The Sun News when the settlement was announced last month. “If that had been the case, he would have been O.K.”