For these 4 Mass. guys, Asperger's is a big joke

By Amanda McGregor
The Salem News / March 27, 2011

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SALEM, Mass.—For this local group of friends, social interaction is a struggle. So you might expect them to shy away from public performance -- but you would be wrong.

Meet Jack Hanke, Michael Ingemi, Noah Britton and Ethan Finlan, who together form Asperger's Are Us, a comedy troupe that has performed two shows in the Salem area.

All four members of the group have Asperger's syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder characterized by difficulties with human interaction and social awareness, among other symptoms.

The boys met each other roughly six years ago while attending a local camp for children with Asperger's, where Britton, who is the oldest, was their counselor. That's where their friendships -- and a shared love of comedy -- took root.

"I was telling my dad how funny they were," recalled Britton, 28, who lives in Salem, "and he said, `You should start a group, The Autistic Comedians.'" That was the genesis of Asperger's Are Us, which formed as the boys grew older.

Their jokes include word play and political humor. They believe Asperger's is a help, not a hindrance, when it comes to writing jokes.

"We feel this humor comes from that," Britton said. "No one who doesn't have Asperger's would write the stuff we do."

Ingemi, an 18-year-old senior at Beverly High who goes by the name "New Michael," to distinguish himself from his dad, said their first public comedy show was "very well-received."

"Not everyone would find it funny," said Hanke, 17, "but the people who came did."

Despite their struggle with socializing, it's more comfortable for them to perform to a large, faceless audience.

"I find it's easier to perform to a group instead of a one-on-one conversation," said Hanke, who is a senior at Newburyport High School.

"Socially, it's very challenging to concentrate on multiple things at once," Britton said. "We have an intense focus and hypersensitivity."

"We care about accuracy and attention to tiny details," Ingemi added.

"People think that we're all obsessed with video games, which we're not," said Finlan, 18, a senior at Rockport High School.

During a recent interview, the four friends continuously engaged in inside jokes with each other and launched into raucous laughter. When asked why they chose to name their troupe based on their disability, Ingemi explained, "It's what we all have in common."

The mission of Asperger's Are Us is to "be funny," and if it helps dispel some misconceptions while they're at it, then that's a plus.

"People think Aspies don't have a sense of humor," Britton said, "and that people with autism are less intelligent, which is totally wrong. We just don't express it in the same way."


Information from: The Salem News,