'Improv comedy helped my ADHD and autism – now I run a club to help others'

When Suzi Payton, 47, discovered she was autistic, has ADHD, Tourette’s and OCD, improvised comedy had entered her life at just the right time.

Twelve years ago, just as this news hit, she was invited by a former employer to pick an extra curricular course they would fund, and she went for improv comedy. She hoped it would help her get out of her shell – though she’d never performed before.

Fast forward to today and she runs her own comedy club in Brighton. Though anyone can attend, the club attracts people who are neurodivergent, who also might have related mental health issues.

‘I’m doing what I love,’ she tells Metro.co.uk. ‘I’m sharing my skills with people who, quite often think, “I can never do that. I’m not funny enough. I’m not quick witted enough.”

‘For me to be able to help people experience the joy of comedy improv like I do, and see that they are great, amazing people, that has an effect on me and my life purpose.’

Getting here was a journey that came almost naturally Suzi.

‘I was diagnosed with ADHD inattentive subtype, and I started recognising that I was neurodivergent,’ she says.

‘I was surviving not thriving, so it took a lot of courage to go for the assessment in the first place.’

Getting the diagnosis was a relief and felt ‘validating’.

‘There was a huge feeling of, “I know now that there are reasons for my struggles”,’ Suzi explains.

‘And there are reasons for my brilliancy too. Understanding myself and how my brain works is priceless.’

Often it is women who are diagnosed with ADHD late in life, due to harmful stereotypes that centre ‘little white boys’ on discourse around the condition, as Suzi puts it. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, males are almost three times more likely to be diagnosed than females.

This results in an absence of support – leaving people like Suzi to do the hard work later down the line. She also believes many of her family members are unknowingly neurodivergent, which is why things were missed in her.

She says: ‘It takes its toll on your self esteem and confidence if you’re struggling and don’t know why.

‘I believe that autism and ADHD cover each other up too, as they can contradict each other.

‘Now there’s more awareness and understanding, so people are like, “this is me”. And now they’re realizing.’

Then came her first time attending an improve comedy class.

‘I thought, this sounds interesting. I’ve always had a great sense of humor, and of play. But I was always very shy and would never speak up,’ she remembers.

‘However, ADHD often leads the way in my mind, so I just did it. I was terrified, and being autistic as well was like, “what am I doing here?”

‘I remember we sat in a big circle and were told to shout our names and do an action. I wanted to run away.’

Having always been ‘misunderstood’, comedy was the ideal place to break out of that feeling – instead she says she could ‘say whatever the hell I like’ and was able to start finding freedom.

It was a happy coincidence the diagnoses and comedy arrived around the same time.

But when acting out her first scene and getting some laughs, something switched on – and Suzi has kept that fire burning since.

‘It became a stress relief, to have a laugh, and beyond that it can help with self-development.’

As Suzi moved into her work as a coach ‘to neurodivergent folks’ and began working with charities, she decided to set up her own comedy space – hoping to share how useful this tool can be.

‘Improv has been such an amazing thing in my life, and when I have a workshop with people who have ADHD, it’s pretty special and the energy is massively high.

‘I wanted to set this up because I felt this space was missing. When I’d gone to improv classes without there being anyone else like me, I could feel excluded and have had a few upsetting experiences.

‘I’ve taken those experiences and made sure that at my workshops, nobody ever feels like that.’

Suzi begins by telling people she has ADHD and other conditions, and explains how this makes her good at improvisation, to help anyone feeling anxious.

‘I let them know I’m here because I want to try something new in a safe space,’ she says.

Improve, in Suzi’s perspective, is ‘great for an autistic ADHD ear’, because there’s structure and the games have rules, which can suit those who are autistic.

While for those with ADHD, there’s freedom to create. When it comes OCD, Suzi finds her intrusive thoughts lessen.

She believes more workshops should be set up like this and prescribed on the NHS, helping people who are ‘stuck in limbo’ on assessment waiting lists.

Suzi says: ‘Doing comedy has fed into every aspect of my life. In meetings I used to stay quiet to avoid saying anything stupid.

‘Now I can sit up, speak up, and my confidence is boosted, and I’m better at being in the moment.

‘It helps me be comfortable with being uncomfortable. It’s been life changing.’

How improv comedy has helped others at Suzi’s workshops

Rose Bainbridge, 36, Brighton, photographer

Rose enjoys feeling like she fits in with the group (Picture: @rosebainbridgephotography)

‘I wanted something that would push me out of my comfort zone, and let me play with like minded people and hopefully have a giggle doing it.

‘The experience has been hilarious, amazing and totally freeing to be in an environment where you are encouraged to be yourself without judgement.

‘In society, I feel I have to pretend to be something I’m not to fit in. 

‘Knowing that there is a safe place for me to be silly with strangers gave me a lot of hope.

‘Having a space where you are allowed to let your guard down, and are encouraged to be yourself is wonderful.’

Lisa Kerr, 47, Worthing, business consultant

The workshops have helped Lisa take herself less seriously (Picture: Lisa Kerr)

‘I’m autistic and have ADHD so I tend to be very critical of myself, and I spend a long time perfecting what I plan to say in presentations, as I hate the thought of making a fool of myself by saying something silly or someone asking me a question and me not knowing the answer, or getting flustered as I speak.

‘I’d always been a little scared to try something like this, but Suzi was so warm and friendly and she made me feel confident that I could do it.

‘Knowing that others at the improv session also had ADHD made me feel more comfortable expressing my insecurity at the start of the first session, and also helped me feel that there wouldn’t be any judgement if I didn’t “get it right”.

‘There would be a positive benefit from having more spaces designed to support us.’

Suzi’s next workshop is June 26th, tickets cost £20, and you can find out more about her coaching opportunities here.

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