The sound of Johnny’s laughter reverberated off the walls of the RV they had rented for the weekend. Camping was a rarity in their family, as was the sound of his giggles. His mother, Connie, drank in the sound; it was as comforting and welcome as her morning cup of coffee.
Since his autism diagnosis five years before, the subject of autism and humor weighed heavy on Connie. She knew that her son was funny and loved to laugh—the world didn’t. His humor wasn’t always well received, and he often misunderstood others’ attempts to amuse him as well.
Connie wished she could do something to bridge the gap. For now she would settle for savoring the sound, and taking mental notes so that she could make it happen as often as possible.
For this article, we will 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 published on the National Library of Medicine’s website titled, Laughing Matters: Infant Humor in the Context of Parental Affect, research shows that “children with autism are more likely to exhibit ‘solitary laughter’, meaning that they laugh when alone in response to stimuli that do not typically evoke laughter in others, rarely laugh in response to others’ laughter unless attempting to echo the sound, and rarely attempt to intentionally make others laugh”.
It is clear autistic people often have a sense of humor considered random or even inappropriate when compared to their neurotypical peers. Sometimes, they express their humor in different ways, or don’t “get” other people’s attempts at humor. The idea is that the jokes they find funny, often do not resonate with other people.
Because of a challenge in reading social cues, they may not find things funny that other people do. This can cause isolation, awkwardness, and hurt from an early age forward.
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 difficulties in communication. Emotions really take a hit if one person is hurt by the other’s humor. Jokes can bring people together, or drive them apart.
Some individuals with autism lack the ability to understand why someone finds something funny, and because of rigid thinking, they may not be able to get their mind around why someone seems to be teasing them. Sometimes, if their own humor is not understood by others, it may not be noticed by other people, and might get lost in the conversation.
These social interactions can produce hurt feelings from both sides, and cause unnecessary feelings of rejection. Humor is a big part of social behavior, it is vital to help people understand each other and to foster the connections our autistic children have. Doing so will help them feel accepted, understood, heard, and seen.
Kinds of humor and autism related responses
It is a myth that autistic people are not funny, or are incapable of enjoying 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, seeing them delight in the hilarious is a precious thing. Let’s take a moment to think about kinds of humor, how autism can influence the effectiveness of each, and learn 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 noticed that sarcastic humor is often the most misunderstood kind of humor.
It usually involves taking something that means one thing, and using it in a completely different way, often the opposite way. It relies on irony, and is often used with body language that doesn’t 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 they are 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 your words match. Make your meaning clear.
Sarcastic humor is the opposite to what makes sense to many on the spectrum due to its confusing nature. Afterall, how can confusion feel funny?
A dry sense of humor can often mirror the way a person with autism may deliver a joke. Saying something funny with a serious face can be confusing for the same reason sarcasm can. However, with dry humor, it is the fact that the jokes are made with a straight face that makes them funny.
Dry humor is frequently very literal. It takes things and draws attention to their funny aspects by pointing out the obvious.
Saying something in a matter of fact way, that is clear to everyone else already, and bringing out its funniness can make a lot of sense to someone who thinks very logically. A joke making sense to someone is paramount in their ability to find it funny themselves.
Satire is often riddled with sarcasm, however, it’s the dark side of humor that can be funny to some with autism. When used in conjunction with literal or dry humor, satire can bring out the giggles in ways that no other kind of humor can.
My child told me about a meme he found hilarious. It involved a person in a wheelchair who had apparently been teased, not bullied.
In retaliation, the person said, “I’ll run over your toes”. The next picture was of the perpetrator sitting on a staircase serenely.
To him, the humor was found in the reality that the one place safe from someone in a wheelchair, was stairs. It was literal, dry, and a little dark.Satire can be funny to those on the spectrum when the nuance of the jokes keep the literal front and center. It is also one that can be a connector in relationships, as people who like the same kinds of humor can bond over it.
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 relatable mistakes that have disastrous consequences, and things going awry are staples.
For some on the spectrum, finding something funny where people get hurt or disaster ensues can cause trouble. Especially when laughing at someone who gets hurt in real life is often met with an anger response.
Why are things funny?
I am a legend in my family for a remark I made when I was about seven years old. My grandmother had been telling the same joke in our family for years. I had always laughed with everyone else.
However, on this one occasion, I finally understood the joke, and for the first time my laugh was genuine. I said with much enthusiasm, “It’s even funnier when you get it!” My family says that all the time now, whenever appropriate, and sometimes otherwise, in fond remembrance of my adorableness.
Communication is key. Unlike seven-year-old me, a child with autism may not laugh with everyone else just to be a part of the crowd. As they grow up, they may begin to laugh along, and mask their confusion as a coping mechanism or learned social skill.
Like seven-year-old me, people on the spectrum will find things much funnier, and their interactions will be genuine, if they understand what is going on. The best place to start is the “why” of funny things.
What things does your child find funny? Why are they funny to them? Explain the “why” of other people’s humor to your child.
Help them in their relationships to find common ground in the funny things of life. Help others who are close to them 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 humorous people in our world also happen to be on the autism spectrum.
The world at large may not adapt to our children or their sense of humor anytime soon. That doesn’t mean that their world shouldn’t.
When people find others with autism funny (and vice versa), new paths of communication open, and bonds are strengthened.
Helping to bridge the gap in understanding of our kids with autism and their humor requires paying attention, taking notes, and finding ways to share funny moments with our kids. When our kids find their place in the world, and their people, humor will fit into it as well.
Mireault, G. C., Crockenberg, S. C., Sparrow, J. E., Cousineau, K., Pettinato, C., & Woodard, K. (2015). Laughing matters: Infant humor in the context of parental affect. Journal of experimental child psychology, 136, 30–41. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jecp.2015.03.012