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Adam Schwartz uses humour to explain Asperger's syndrome

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When Adam Schwartz was 12, his mother told him he was autistic.

"At the time I was like, 'Sweet!' " he says. "So I tried my hand at painting, but that didn't take. Pottery didn't work out so well, either."

Ba-dum-bum.

Jokes aside, the 27-year-old Winnipegger does have a high-functioning form of autism called Asperger's syndrome. It's a developmental disorder that affects a person's ability to socialize and communicate effectively with others.

"Aspies," as people with the condition often refer to themselves, might talk too loudly, or use pedantic speech. Their conversations can be long-winded and one-sided, and they tend to misunderstand the nuances of language and social norms, taking a sarcastic remark seriously, for example, or failing to grasp the concept of personal space.

"I'm extremely blunt. I can't read body language or tonal language. And I used to perseverate a lot," Schwartz says over coffee at a West Broadway diner.

People with Asperger's are very linear thinkers, he explains. So to cope in a world of "neurotypicals" (a term for non-Aspies), they "just follow the rules" -- without adjusting for new circumstances.

"If I was told personal space was two feet, and a cute girl came up to me to kiss me, I'd probably step back two feet," he says.

To say that the tall, dark Schwartz -- who has a master's degree in library and information sciences -- has found it difficult to fit at times throughout his life would be an understatement. The loneliness and alienation, he admits, led to bouts of suicidal depression.

In an effort to hone his social skills -- especially where women were concerned -- he turned to the performing arts.

After two years of failed acting classes, along with some voice and diction training, the would-be schoolteacher turned to standup comedy.

"I've always been a class clown, probably to compensate because I was so different," says Schwartz, who has performed at open mic nights once or twice a week for the past five years. He was a finalist for the Free Press's Wackiest Comedian contest in 2011.

"The comedy community was the first place I felt welcome since high school."

Now, in a bid to promote awareness and understanding of Asperger's syndrome, and to offer humorous insight into the life of an Aspie, Schwartz is taking his act to the fringe festival. He performs at the Playhouse Studio (Venue 3) from July 18 to 27.

Aspergers: A Tale of a Social Misfit is "about how I have trouble making friends and how I'm horrible with the ladies," he says, adding his comic monologue also contains a message of positivity and hope.

Schwartz says he was in denial for years about having Asperger's. He often felt stuck between two worlds because while he felt ill-equipped to handle "regular society," his social skills were better than most Aspies, so he didn't really fit into that community either. Instead, he kept telling himself he just needed to try harder.

"Every year I thought, 'This is the year I'm going to get a girlfriend and be popular,' and that if I just work really hard I can achieve anything," he recalls. "I was so delusional -- I actually thought I was going to make it to the NBA."

Finally, he accepted his brain just works differently than most people's.

"It's not worse, it's just different," he says. "I came to understand that I'm on a different wavelength than most people, and I'm probably always going to be a social misfit wherever I go.

"Having Asperger's has caused a lot of depression, but at other times, I'm happy with who I am."

carolin.vesely@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 18, 2013 D5

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Updated on Friday, July 19, 2013 at 8:03 AM CDT: changes headline, adds photo

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