Humor, Jokes and Individuals with Autism


Humor is a wonderful skill reserved for the human race and telling jokes is a great way to spread it around. Many studies have shown that laughing is good for your health. It reduces anxiety and stress which most individuals with autism experience on a daily basis.

Unfortunately not everyone is adept at telling jokes or comprehending them. An individual on the autism spectrum whose brain processes information in a very literal manner will often misinterpret the punch line.

There is an art to telling jokes – an art that is difficult for many to master. At a minimum, telling a funny joke requires a good memory, perfect timing and a controlled delivery. Understanding a joke calls for certain skills as well. It requires knowledge about the topic and an ability to connect the dots between the ideas presented. A concrete mind will have trouble connection those associations especially when idioms or some type of word play is involved.

To truly understand a joke it involves two levels of communication – one level takes in the literal meaning and the other evaluates it. The second part of this process is usually where children with autism get stuck. Coming to realize that the intent of a statement can differ from what is actually being said is a hurdle that most children with ASD struggle with.

Studies show that these two levels of communication come from different areas in the brain. The left hemisphere of the brain helps a person understand the literal meaning of a joke or idiom. The right side of the brain, the frontal lobe in particular, is responsible for interpreting context and double meanings.

For children with autism this part of their brain is typically not making the necessary connections it needs to understand the abstract language of jokes and idioms. Therefore, jokes and idioms are often lost in translation.

The more complex humor is, the more it requires an understanding of context, metaphor and the contradictory meaning of words. Anything ambiguous, such as an idiom, often leaves a child with ASD scratching their head in confusion or accepting the statement as fact yet denying the possibility.

Idioms are word combinations that suggest something different than their actual meanings. They are non-literal phrases that imply the unexpected. It can sound like a foreign language to a child with autism.  How does curiosity kill cats? Why would anyone want to take ‘a bitter pill’? Why would someone ‘cut a rug’? And the list continues.

  • A drop in the bucket
  • Pull the plug
  • Wearing your heart on your sleeve
  • Ace in the hole
  • Bite your tongue
  • Spitting image
  • A piece of cake
  • Break an arm and a leg
  • Barking up the wrong tree

Humor is important to your child’s social development because being able to tell a joke and laugh with others will help her interact socially and create new connections. So what can a parent do to trigger and create the neural pathways necessary to help expand your child’s sense of humor and understanding of jokes and idioms. Here are five strategies to implement.

  1. Intentionally teach idioms. Gradually expose your child to idioms and explain their meaning. Make it a point to use them or instruct your child directly by using homemade flashcards. This will force the neurons in her brains to make new connections that will help her develop a better understanding.
  2. Train your child to seek clarifying information when he is confused. The trick is to get him to realize when something doesn’t make sense rather than accepting the information as fact . Then you can teach him to take it to the next step by asking an adult to explain.
  3. Focus on visual humor when possible. If your child is a visual learner, sticking with slapstick comedy, cartoons and comic books that are read aloud while your child follows the pictures. This is a good place to start before proceeding to the telling of jokes and more abstract humor.
  4. Teach your child one or two jokes he can share socially. Simple knock-knock jokes are a good place to start. After a while your child will start creating his own jokes but will require guidance to make sure the punch lines are headed in the right direction. The goal is to ensure that his schoolmates will laugh with him and not at him.
  5. Practice, practice, practice. Never think this task is complete. As your child gains more experience in stretching her brain to create new neural pathways, you can raise your efforts to a more sophisticated type of humor. Remember, a family that laughs together, has less stress and grows together in amazing ways.

Never forget that in addition to nurturing and caring for your child’s basic needs, parenting involves teaching as well. Focusing on the tactics mentioned above makes it possible for your child with autism to expand the neural connections necessary to understand jokes. And depending on your child’s unique autism blueprint it may also help him develop the neural pathways to tell a joke appropriately within a social situation. As your child matures this will get easier for her but taking the steps above will help accelerate the process.

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