Humor and Autism

April 1 we ‘celebrate’ a day that is intended to be riddled – pun intended – with jokes – practical and impractical.  I put the word celebrate in quotes because I dread practical jokes.  I do not appreciate being fooled or made to look stupid by what someone else considers funny.  This day is approached with trepidation.  There is a reason the term “butt of the joke” is there and it does not seem to be complimentary.

The fact is humor is relative.  There is a kind of humor determined to be owned by an entire nation – “British” humor.  It seems comedy in Britain has been consistent enough over time to be considered a genre of humor. I’ll bet you everyone in Britain does not laugh at all the same jokes…and many in America or Russia (I’m guessing at Russia) don’t find British humor funny.

Why is that?  Humor often boils down to nuance.  If you can’t understand the nuance within the joke, then you’re likely not going to get the joke.  I can think of many times someone has had to explain a joke to me and I still didn’t get it.  However, I laugh to make them feel good and then play the joke over in my head a few times trying to understand what I was missing in the translation.  The ability to notice someone has found something humorous that you do not is an important tool in social acceptance.

Humor is also context.  Political jokes, for example, are only funny if you understand the events of the time – current or historical.   Your particular political standing can also determine if you find the joke humorous or offensive.

That’s another amazing conflict with humor.  Comedy can be used as both offense and defense.  There is no surprise that many comedians learned comedy in order to protect themselves as a result of low self-esteem or bullying – or both.  Self-deprecating humor is used to make the ensuing laughter happen on your terms rather than at your expense.  Sarcasm can be used to hurt someone in the guise of humor.

I’m reminded at this point of the popular Stephen Shore quote “If you’ve met one person with autism – you’ve met one person with autism”.  I might add if you’ve met one person with a sense of humor you’ve met one person with a sense of humor.

Some believe that those with autism lack a sense of humor.  I propose that their ability to experience humor is as singular as their autism.  Humor is taught and sometimes there needs to be more deliberate attention to the nuances of humor.  In my experience, every 5-year-old hears the word “poop” and bursts out laughing.  It is only when we are taught these things are only funny in certain contexts and at certain times that we don’t run the risk of being kicked out of a public place for running around and yelling “POOP!”  Just because I don’t laugh outwardly at the word “poop” part of me inside is rolling on the floor clutching my sides.  Knowing WHEN to laugh is taught or we might never grow out of potty humor – and some never do.

Humor can often be forgotten when teaching people social strategies.  I’m reminded of another famous saying – “Laughter is the best medicine”.  Humor and comedy are important social mediums and important to our physical and psychological health. They can help us form connections with others.  Most of us would put in our dating profiles we have a good sense of humor or we’re looking for someone with a sense of humor.  It’s a very attractive quality and is often a helpful tool in our ability to cope with life’s difficulties.

As I end my thoughts on humor I revisit that humor is subjective.  We will never all find the same thing funny.  This is why it’s important to be taught it’s OK to fake it – this can be a hard concept for someone with autism.  The nuances of humor can be difficult to understand but it’s important to be taught what humor looks like in others and when it’s inappropriate to show your own sense of humor.  I don’t think it is for anyone to say who experiences humor and who does not.  We all experience it at different times and in different ways.

I hope today, and every day, humor finds you and causes uncontrollable laughter and joy – if only for a minute.

Happy April Fool’s Day!

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