Autism and Humor
What do you call a fake noodle? An im-pasta (imposter)!
While this may be funny to some of us, individuals with autism may not respond to the joke the same way as their neurotypical peers. The lack of laughter could be misinterpreted by others as lacking a sense of humor or even having lower intelligence for not understanding the joke (Includkids, 2016). However, individuals with autism do in fact want to laugh and make others laugh. They just produce and process humor differently from others, possibly due to their social, language and communication difficulties (McCormick, 2022).
Individuals with autism may engage less in ‘social-interaction’ laughter (i.e., they laugh when it is genuinely funny, and not out of politeness or social pressure; Jack, 2021). In addition, they typically display rigidity in thinking, prefer sameness, and experience difficulty in seeing the big picture. Consequently, it could be difficult for them to create and understand conventional humor that requires flexible thinking (McCormick, 2022). Besides that, jokes usually require the use of figurative language and abstract thinking, which could be a struggle for individuals with autism. They may need a more explicit explanation to understand the jokes (Includkids, 2016).
These differences in humor production and understanding may have a negative impact on social participation and the development of interpersonal relationships such as friendships (Jacobs & Jacobs, 2014). Telling an age-inappropriate joke (e.g., baby joke or adult joke) or responding inappropriately (e.g., laughing at the wrong time, laughing too loudly) could unintentionally result in them feeling marginalized by their peers. They could even be teased or bullied for being the odd one out. Thus, it is crucial to teach individuals with autism humor to equip them with an important social skill to improve their social interactions with others. Additionally, having a sense of humor could also help the individual to be more tolerant of others, especially when dealing with teasing or bullying at school, and help them to have a more positive outlook on life (Jacobs & Jacobs, 2014).
Here are some strategies we can use to teach individuals with autism to tell and respond to jokes appropriately (Includkids, 2016; Jacobs & Jacobs, 2014):
1. Experiment with positive and age-appropriate jokes
Use visual tools to show what is considered funny, such as cartoons and comic books.
Expose them to jokes that align with their interests to motivate them. For instance, if they like animals, teach them some animal jokes.
Find jokes that are relevant to their age group (e.g., related to current pop culture references) and test these jokes on their peers or siblings before teaching them the jokes. This ensures that their peers of a certain age group will find the jokes funny.
Start with simple one-liner jokes and gradually increase the complexity of the jokes when they have more language capabilities and start to understand the humor. Take note that some jokes may require prerequisite skills such as taking turns (e.g., Knock knock joke). Make sure that they have these skills before teaching them the more complex jokes.
Create a visual schedule to lay out the specific steps of telling a joke. For example, making eye contact, saying the first line of the joke, waiting for the other person to respond, and saying the punch line. It is also important to teach them to expect and accept that different people may respond differently to the jokes. For instance, people may respond to a “What do you call a …” joke with “What?” or “I don’t know” or even shrug.
Lay out explicit rules of joke-telling, such as the appropriate time to tell jokes (e.g., during recess, not during class), when to stop (i.e., may not be socially appropriate to tell jokes non-stop for 10 minutes) and not to repeat the same joke to the same person.
2. Teach them how to respond to jokes
Teach them various ways to respond to jokes, especially for older children and adults. This includes laughing, smiling or saying “That’s funny”, “That’s a good joke”. It is also important to teach them the different types of laughs that vary in intensity, volume and duration (e.g., chuckle, giggle, full-blown laughter) depending on how funny the jokes are. A visual scale (e.g., 5-point Likert scale) can be used to show them the appropriate intensity of laughter to a particular joke.
Teach them how to reciprocate when others are telling jokes. For instance, for one-liner “What do you call a …” jokes, they can respond with “What?”. For knock knock jokes, they can respond with “Who’s there?”
Provide them with ample opportunities to practice telling and responding to jokes at home and then outside of home (e.g., in social gatherings with relatives and similar-age cousins, at school).
Add humor to daily activities to help them recognise the fun in everyday life and develop their sense of humor.
In conclusion, humor is vital for one’s personal and social growth. Producing and responding to jokes appropriately helps to facilitate one’s interpersonal relationships. As individuals with autism may perceive jokes differently, we can use various strategies to equip them with the social skill of understanding humor in a conventional way.
Written by: Xiao Hui
Includkids. (2016, 13 September). Socially Acceptable: Teaching Kids To Tell Jokes. Including Kids. https://www.includingkids.org/teaching-kids-to-tell-jokes/
Jack, C. (2021, 7 September). "Do People With Autism Have a Sense of Humor?" Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/sg/blog/women-autism-spectrum-disorder/202109/do-people-autism-have-sense-humor
Jacobs, J. & Jacobs, L. (2014, 1 October). Humor is Important to Your Child’s Social Development. Autism Spectrum News. https://autismspectrumnews.org/humor-is-important-to-your-childs-social-development/
McCormick, J. (2022). Asperger’s Syndrome and Humor. Asperger/Autism Network. Retrieved from https://www.aane.org/aspergers-syndrome-humor/