The sound of Johnny’s laughter echoed off the walls of the trailer they had rented for the weekend. Camping was a rarity in his family, as was the sound of his giggling. His mother, Connie, absorbed the sound; he was as comforting and welcome as your morning cup of coffee.
Ever since her autism diagnosis five years earlier, the subject of autism and humor had weighed heavily on Connie. She knew her son was funny and she loved to laugh, the world doesn’t. Her humor was not always well received and she often misunderstood others’ attempts to amuse her as well.
Connie wished she could do something to bridge the gap. She for now would be content to savor the sound and make mental notes so she could make it happen as often as possible.
For this article, we’ll talk about how humor and autism spectrum disorder interact with each other, and maybe learn some of the things Connie did.
humor and the autistic mind
According to an article posted on the National Library of Medicine website titled, Laughter Matters: Children’s Humor in the Context of Parental Affectionresearch shows that “children with autism are more likely to exhibit ‘lonely laugh’, meaning they laugh when alone in response to stimuli that do not normally elicit laughter from others, they rarely laugh in response to laughter of others unless they try to echo the laughter”. sound, and they rarely intentionally try to make others laugh.”
It is clear that autistic people often have a sense of humor that is seen as random or even inappropriate compared to their neurotypical peers. Sometimes they express their humor in different ways, or they don’t “pick up” other people’s attempts at humor. The idea is that the jokes they find funny often don’t resonate with other people.
Due to a challenge in reading social cues, they may not find things other people do funny. This can cause isolation, discomfort and pain from a young age onwards.
Social interaction and humor.
Most relationships depend on levity to be successful. The effectiveness of a joke and differences in sense of humor can cause communication difficulties. Emotions really take a hit if one person is hurt by another’s humor. Jokes can bring people together or tear them apart.
Some people with autism lack the ability to understand why someone finds something funny and, due to their rigid thinking, may not be able to understand why someone seems to be joking with them. Sometimes, if others don’t understand your own humor, other people may not notice and get lost in the conversation.
These social interactions can produce hurt feelings on both sides and cause unnecessary feelings of rejection. Humor is a big part of social behavior, it’s vital in helping people understand each other and fostering the connections that our autistic children have. Doing so will help them feel accepted, understood, heard, and seen.
Types of humor and responses related to autism
It is a myth that autistic people are not funny or are unable to enjoy humor. There are many famous comedians who happen to be autistic.
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Those of us who love people on the spectrum know that watching them revel in fun is a precious thing. Let’s take a moment to think about types of humor, how autism can influence the effectiveness of each, and learn how to foster understanding in and for our children.
In my research, and through conversations with my own son who is on the autism spectrum, I have come to realize that sarcastic humor is often the most misunderstood type of humor.
It usually involves taking something that means one thing and using it in a completely different way, often the opposite way. It is based on irony and is often used with body language that does not match its meaning.
This presents a problem for many people on and off the spectrum. Two markers for autism come into play specifically when someone with autism spectrum disorder is trying to find sarcastic humor funny.
One marker is not understanding social cues, the other is rigid thinking. Reading the body language and energy of a person who is joking when the words he is using sound mean or harsh is confusing.
A good rule of thumb when communicating with someone who is autistic is to let your body and words match. Clarify your meaning.
Sarcastic humor is the opposite of what makes sense to many on the spectrum due to its confusing nature. After all, how can confusion feel funny?
A dry sense of humor can often reflect the way a person with autism might tell a joke. Saying something funny with a straight face can be confusing for the same reason sarcasm is. With dry humor, though, it’s the fact that the jokes are made with a straight face that makes them funny.
Dry humor is often very literal. Pick things up and draw attention to their fun aspects by pointing out the obvious.
Saying something in a practical way, which is already clear to everyone else, and emphasizing its grace can make a lot of sense to someone who thinks very logically. A joke that makes sense to someone is paramount to your ability to find it funny.
Satire is often laced with sarcasm, however it is the dark side of humor that can be funny to some people with autism. When used in conjunction with literal or dry humor, satire can elicit laughs in a way that no other type of humor can.
My son told me about a meme he found funny. He involved a person in a wheelchair who had apparently been teased, not bullied.
In retaliation, the person said, “I’ll run your toes over.” The next image was of the perpetrator sitting serenely on a ladder.
For him, the humor was in the reality that the only place safe from someone in a wheelchair was the stairs. It was literal, dry and a bit dark. Satire can be funny for those on the spectrum when the nuance of the jokes keeps it literal front and center. He is also one that can be a connector in relationships, as people who like the same types of humor can bond with him.
Slapstick comedy has been a long time favorite for many people. It often includes a lot of physical comedy. For example, people getting hurt, making identifiable mistakes that have disastrous consequences, and things going wrong are staples.
For some on the spectrum, finding something funny where people get hurt or disaster strikes can cause problems. Especially when laughing at someone getting hurt in real life is often met with an angry response.
Why are things funny?
I am a legend in my family because of a comment I made when I was about seven years old. My grandmother had been telling the same joke in our family for years. She had always laughed at me with everyone else.
However, this time I finally got the joke and for the first time my laugh was genuine. I said with great enthusiasm: “It’s even more fun when you understand it!”. My family says that all the time now, whenever it’s appropriate, and sometimes otherwise, in fond remembrance of my cuteness.
Communication is key. Unlike me, who was seven years old, a child with autism may not laugh with others just to be part of the crowd. As they get older, they may begin to laugh and mask their confusion as a coping mechanism or learned social skill.
Like me, seven years old, people on the spectrum will find things much more fun and their interactions will be genuine, if they understand what is going on. The best place to start is the “why” of fun stuff.
What things does your child find funny? Why are they fun for them? Explain to your child the “why” of other people’s humor.
Help them in their relationships to find common ground in the fun things in life. Help others who are close to them to understand, pay attention to their humor and respond accordingly, even if they don’t “get it”.
Humor is the “glue” of society. Some of the most influential and fun people in our world are also on the autism spectrum.
The world at large may not suit our children or their sense of humor any time soon. that doesn’t mean that their the world shouldn’t.
When people find other people with autism amusing (and vice versa), new avenues of communication open up and bonds are strengthened.
Helping to bridge the gap in understanding our children with autism and their humor requires paying attention, taking notes, and finding ways to share fun times with our children. When our children find their place in the world and its people, humor will also fit into it.
Mireault, GC, Crockenberg, SC, Sparrow, JE, Cousineau, K., Pettinato, C., & Woodard, K. (2015). Laughing Matters: Children’s Humor in the Context of Parental Affection. journal of experimental child psychology, 13630–41. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jecp.2015.03.012