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Autism

"Do People With Autism Have a Sense of Humor?"

Why people with autism can offer us a unique perspective on humor.

Key points

  • It is sometimes assumed that people with autism lack a sense of humour.
  • People with autism are as funny as neurotypicals—but they may, at times, display humour in different ways.
  • People with autism are less likely to engage in laughter purely for the sake of social interaction.
  • People with autism may display some behaviours, such as random and nervous laughter, which can cause interpersonal challenges.

"Are people with autism funny?" is a question that is asked a lot; I hope I can offer some clarification by addressing it, both as a woman with autism and as a therapist who works with autistic clients.

Personally, the question strikes me as a bit daft—probably because I find things funny all the time. I love comedy and I think I’m fairly amusing (I often amuse myself, along with other people). Sometimes what I find funny is inappropriate or different from what other people think is funny—and when I find something amusing, I can really get carried away. (I once had a boss who I found funny. Other people found him funny too, but I got to the stage of having hysterics whenever he came near me. Thankfully, I soon left that job.)

But the other reason I find the question a bit daft is because of the often hilariously amusing women I work with. A common factor I’ve noticed is their ability to laugh at themselves and to see the ridiculousness of life. Their anecdotes and perspectives are consistently amusing.

Ivana Cajina, Unsplash
Source: Ivana Cajina, Unsplash

But the idea that people with autism lack a sense of humour still pervades. I recently read two articles speculating as to whether or not Einstein had autism (the evidence suggests he may have, although diagnosing deceased people is fraught with difficulties). Both these articles pointed to the fact that Einstein was renowned for his humour which, they reasoned, argued against him having autism.

The Facts About Autism and Humour

While making any blanket assumption that autistic people aren’t funny or don’t understand humour is wrong, there are some general differences in the ways that people with autism use and interpret humour, compared to people without autism.

1. Laughter as social interaction

One of the reasons autistic people are thought to lack a sense of humour may be due to the fact that they engage less than neurotypicals in “social interaction” laughter. One study showed that autistic children displayed laughter primarily when they found something genuinely funny, as opposed to laughing as a means of social expression.1

So perhaps it’s not so much that autistic people find things less funny—they may just not respond to the same social cues to laugh at things out of politeness or manners. My son once mentioned to me that he thought it was weird that everyone at the cinema laughed at the same time, even when they weren’t laughing at the funniest part of the film. I agreed and noted that I never bothered laughing unless I found something funny. I can see why, to people who don’t know me, this makes it seem like I lack a sense of humour.

2. Random laughing

On the other hand, I find lots of things highly amusing and I laugh a lot. People have noticed that I punctuate my sentences with laughter, partly because I quite regularly have amusing thoughts in my head. In the same way that I inappropriately laughed at my boss—and going back to the cinema example, too—I might laugh at inopportune and random moments. Since childhood, I’ve ended up sobbing with laughter when I find something funny and have offended many people along the way.

Other people with autism report that they engage in similar behaviour. One client, Patricia, told me how she was always in trouble at school: “I was such a well-behaved kid, really quiet and I never wanted to get into trouble, but I’d have these terrible laughing fits. I couldn’t control them and I hated it, but I would find stupid things funny.”

3. Nervous laughter

People with autism tend to experience both communication and emotional regulation issues. Nervous laughter may be a means to regulate emotions to avoid being overwhelmed with anxiety.2 Another client, Helen, told me, “I laugh when I’m nervous—and the more nervous I get, the more I laugh. It’s terrible because I’ve laughed at some awful things, like my dad’s funeral.”

4. Not getting jokes

Some autistic people both get and make jokes of the more “traditional” variety. But some people with autism simply don’t find popular joke types or structures amusing. While they may get the point of a funny anecdote or something that is visually or physically funny, they may struggle with more contrived types of humour.

As a child, for example, I would laugh until I cried at something funny in real life—but I hated cartoons that were motivated by repetitive punchlines, like "Tom and Jerry." I knew what was coming, every time, and I didn’t think it was funny the first time—let alone the hundreds of other times it was on the screen.

People with autism might also struggle with certain types of humour because they take things literally. My client Danielle told me, “I love comedy. I’ve even done stand up. I love hilarious stories, but I hate joke-punchline stuff, because half the time I don’t get the punchline. I need to think about it because I usually attach a different meaning to it than everyone else seems to.”

The Takeaway

So do people with autism have a sense of humour? Of course—just as much as neurotypical people do. (Let’s face it: Some people are funny and love a laugh, while others don’t).

One of my clients, a stand-up comedian, described her experience of humour like this: “I can’t tell a quick joke to save myself. But being on the outside, seeing things that other people don’t see, and finding myself in some right old weird situations has given me a unique perspective which I bring to my routine.” Just as in other areas of life, autistic people likely have something new, fresh, and unique to offer in the field of humour.

References

1. Hudenko, WJ, Stone, W, Bachorowski, J-A (2009) Laughter differs in children with autism: an acoustic analysis of laughs produced by children with and without the disorder, Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 39(10): 1392-1400

2. Ramachandran, VS (2005) A brief tour of human consciousness: from imposter poodles to purple numbers. Plume

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