A man walks into the Glasgow office of FDM, an IT services provider, with a very large suitcase.
Comedian Janey Godley asks him what’s in the suitcase. He says he doesn’t want to talk about it.
For the next hour and a half, the 15 people assembled in the room quietly wonder what is in the suitcase. No answers are forthcoming.
Finally there’s the big reveal: he unzips the suitcase to reveal six or seven lamps and exclaims “I’m travelling light!”
Everybody laughs and a few high-fives are shared.
This was just of the many jokes enjoyed at a series of comedy workshops held to mark the 20th anniversary of The National Autistic Society Scotland. Over eight weeks, comedians Janey Godley and her daughter, Ashley Storrie, worked with a group of 12 autistic people aged between 16 and 50 to help them write, hone and perform their own comedy.
Last week the group took to the stage at Scottish Parliament and put on a great show for over 100 guests. This was no mean feat – standing up and speaking to that number of people can be really daunting, never mind trying to make them laugh. But the audience did laugh, and our budding comedians enjoyed the experience. Their confidence is testament to Janey and Ashley, who were patient, creative and honest in the feedback and advice they gave the group.
We approached Janey and Ashley to take part in this project after hearing a podcast in which Janey discussed about life with her autistic husband, and Ashley spoke about her own autism. Both women have said the workshops have been the most difficult, and most rewarding, work they have ever undertaken. Janey in particular was pleased to share the experience with her daughter, she recognises that Ashley has formed a strong bond with the group, and gives them constructive feedback based on their own experiences to help them create funny, clever routines.
One participant, Donna Holland, told me that the workshops have been a good opportunity to meet new people, and that she feels like she really fits in. Donna explained that she is shy but that Janey and Ashley gave her the confidence to participate.
As a charity, we often talk about the challenges facing autistic people in Scotland. We have a responsibility to do so: 66 per cent of autistic people feel socially isolated, and only 32 per cent of autistic adults are in work, compared to 80 per cent of the non-disabled population. We have work to do to make Scotland a more autism-friendly nation.
But for our 20th anniversary I felt it was important for the people we support, their families, and our dedicated staff to share some jokes – hence the comedy workshops and the performance at Scottish Parliament.
Our celebrations wouldn’t have been possible without the help of some very generous friends. Norman Yarwood, the business operations manager at FDM, let us hold the workshops in the company’s spacious offices. John Hatfield, the director of Second City Creative and a member of our advisor committee, made a film of the comedy group. Anas Sarwar, MSP, sponsored our parliamentary reception, and the minister for childcare and early years, Mark McDonald, spoke at the event. Jane Asher, our charity’s president, donated a recipe for ginger nut biscuits so that we could hold sponsored bake sales. And talented young designer Anna Marion used a 3D printer to make cookie cutters in the shape of our logo.
It was a pleasure to hold this event in Scottish Parliament. It became the first building in Scotland to receive our Autism Friendly Award in 2015, and recently renewed its commitment ensuring accessibility by securing the award for a second time.
As 2016 draws to a close we are now thinking about the future: it is time to really question the impact of the Autism Strategy, steps should be taken to ensure autistic children succeed in school, and more local authorities should follow Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire’s lead and become “autism friendly” to reduce isolation.
Our charity will continue to provide innovative services and campaign on issues affecting autistic people for the next 20 years and beyond: until everyone understands.
Jenny Paterson, director of The National Autistic Society Scotland