Humorless and Humorous Autism

Behind the Laughter

Image via Wikipedia

It should hardly be surprising that I don’t like it when other people laugh at my son’s attempts to communicate and interact with the world; they are effectively making fun of his disability when they use his echolalia to amuse themselves, mimic his happy-dance, or encourage him to copy highly inappropriate behaviour. Fighting the consequences – as we try to un-teach and explain to him why his new or reinforced behaviours are wrong – can take weeks or even months. It’s hard to laugh at autism when you’re living the effects of it everyday. But it’s not impossible, you just tend to do it in a dark way and in private.

My husband and I regularly make (rather un-repeatable) joking comments to each other, about what we have to put up with each day due to our son’s autism; the sort of comments that we would be horrified to hear from other people talking about our son. We can make similar comments in front of other parents going through the same struggles though, because we’re all in this together. The material is plentiful – stimming, echolalia, wheels and train obsessions, routines. The chances to laugh while you’re going through the problems are as good as non-existent, but you snatch them when you can. Mostly the chances arise when the kids are finally in bed or off playing for a brief while. And the laughter often seems to carry a sort of desperate exhaustion. Cause, let’s face it, the parents of these kids are almost always desperate and exhausted.

I am amazed at the opportunities for laughter with a neurotypical child. They are beautifully hilarious. Everyday my one year-old has me laughing at his antics and facial expressions. We never had those laughs with our autistic first-born; it’s simply not funny when your child is largely non-responsive and frequently tantrums, and you can’t figure out why. (It’s not funny when you figure out why either.)

Humour itself is a problem for people on the spectrum. They are very literal and visual, and humour is classically far more subtle than that. Understanding humour often requires reference to innuendo, social norms, and frankly norms in general. Autistic people aren’t that huge on the norms. If you do an internet search for humour and autism it becomes clear that the dialogue is mostly about these types of problems, and not about how gosh-darn hilarious autism is.

My own taste in humour has changed since having to deal with a special-needs child. Jokes about friends acting as if they’re intellectually disabled or have had brain damage, used to seem like harmless fun, now they cut too close to the bone and make me cringe. The person telling the joke or making the comment does seem to matter; I suppose it’s like a Jew making a Jewish joke, you know they don’t mean any harm and are just laughing at themselves. But it can feel quite insidious coming from someone without personal experience and understanding of what they’re laughing at.

The longer you are in the autism world, the more specific the humour gets, and the more confusing it becomes to “outsiders”. Even when you are “in the know”, what one faction within autism finds hilarious, another group might find deeply offensive, such as those on two sides of the vaccine debate. Those who believe vaccines cause autism and are strong believer’s in Jenny McCarthy’s cause, won’t find this (with linked explanations here) or this, particularly amusing. All parents might be able to smile at the quotes in this piece though. Then again, when has any single type of humour appealed to everyone? (Having actually done a university course on Philosophy of Humour, I’m going to tell you “never”.)

I encourage anyone reading this to add in the comments any links they might have to online articles or videos, or books, that allowed them to laugh at little (or a lot) at autism. At the end of the day, and the end of every day, we all need to find a reason to laugh to help keep us sane – and give ourselves permission to have those laughs, even if only in the privacy of our own families and homes.

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This entry was posted in Attitudes to Autism, Parenting an Autistic Child, The Lighter Side of Autism and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

27 Responses to Humorless and Humorous Autism

  1. Jenny says:

    I have a 5 yr old PDD-NOS son who is very verbal (very echolalic, too) and a big mimicker, among other things. My friend’s autistic 3 yr old does not have my son’s sensory issues, but he is learning to be verbal and for now mostly sticks to himself. We try to get together whenever we can for playdates. On the last play date, he started laughing for no apparent reason during a video that he wasn’t watching. Then my son started mimicking him, and they progressively got louder. My NT 2 yr old was saying, “I can’t hear!” and I was trying to carry on a conversation w/my friend. Finally the laughers were so loud I had to stop. We laughed a bit, and then my friend said, “When does this go away? I know people are telling me it won’t, but it has to.” I said, “I don’t think it goes away. It gets better, though.” It is so very true that we can make jokes about stimming, echolalia, sensory issues (like my son hugging the Christmas tree for five minutes because he likes the feel of it) that we would never tolerate from others. My brain is so fried that I can’t remember any of the funnier things, but they’re there.

  2. MJ says:

    Well said.

    There are certainly days when you have the choice of either stressing out and going off the deep end or laughing at the situation. I think it is always healthier for all involved – parents and children – to try to see the humor in even the darkest situations.

    Unfortunately, finding humor in autism might be one of the hardest things for a new autism parent to learn to do.

    • Absolutely. It took us as parents a very long time before we could find any aspect of autism “amusing”, it’s just confusing and frightening and a great big unknown. Once you get your head around the fact that the autism isn’t going to go away and you just have to learn to live with it as best you can, you get into the frame of mind where you can see a bit of humour here and there in the mad situation.

  3. Jenny says:

    OK, I thought of another funny. My son’s favorite movie is “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.” He LOVES Flint Lockwood and has turned his room into the “invention house”. He even mimics Flint to the point of running like him, shaking his head in a double-take like Flint does, etc. So, as I’m unloading the dishwasher, he keeps dashing by, yelling about his inventions, body movements just like a cartoon character. Kind of funny to watch a lanky kid turn himself into a cartoon!

  4. mamafog says:

    What a great post. I think finding something to laugh about is so important for peace of mind.
    We were at the dollar store. My 3.5 year old daughter with autism was sitting in the cart, and I’ll admit I was not looking at her. In an instant she grabbed the finger of the lady behind us and pulled her towards the cart and attempted to take her package of cookies!

    A very funny blog is http://www.bigdaddyautism.com. (I’m just a reader)

  5. Pingback: I have officially lost my sense of humor | Kitaiska Sandwich

  6. Lynn says:

    If I couldn’t find humor in my life raising an autistic child, I think that I would go insane. Truly. A lot of it is gallows humor for sure, which isn’t for everyone, but I’ve found a great group of like-minded parents out here in the blogosphere and on Twitter that give me such support…as well as much-needed laughs.

    • It’s incredibly valuable to be able to access communities like that online, particuarly when being a parent of an autistic child can be quite isolating. It often comes down to laugh or cry, and having people who understand what you’re going through, who can laugh with you, is a wonderful (and perhaps necessary) thing.

  7. goodfountain says:

    We do have to find the humor with our children or we’d lose our minds. I wrote a post about something of Charlotte’s I found funny. http://goodfountain.wordpress.com/2009/05/21/literally-hilarious-hilariously-literal/

    (PS: I wandered over here from Kitaiska Sandwich.)

  8. akbutler says:

    I too am here from Kitaiska Sandwich, and like Lynn, if I didn’t laugh sometimes I’d cry. But I’m the only one allowed to find the stimming and literal stuff funny (like asking me if our Christmas tree will have a monkey with a chair stuck in it…took me an hour to realize it was from Curious George…funny thing is we don’t even celebrate Christmas). the evil eye comes out if anyone else does it…

    • Absolutely the way we feel too. When other people laugh at these things it comes off like they’re making fun of things my son cannot control due to his autism, but when we joke about it we never mean any harm or to ridicule him, it’s just a matter of finding humour in the madness.

  9. As parents of a six year old boy on the spectrum — we can very well understand. But we are lucky enough not to be desperate — exhausted yes, desperate no — and to find life with our son’s autism can be amusing and hilarious. And yes — we make fun of many autistic behaviours of our son — just the way we would never accept by a stranger: what’s the difference there? well, it’s easy — you can have a good laugh as long as it’s a *good*, and not an *evil* laugh. As long as it comes from love and not from a “better than you” attitude.
    Moreover, our son has his own — if peculiar (ok, let’s say it: plain weird) — sense of humour. And I’m sure he takes his fun at our NT behaviours, too.

    (sorry for the broken English — I’m Italian)

  10. Melissa says:

    OK here’s one, and gallows humor definitely. (a warning for those who don’t like it) So, my daughter several days ago had to have staples put into her head b/c she (as she is wont to do) had a tantrum…. she is not usually apt to have them on the stairs. So she pitched down about 4-5 stairs.
    Now the funny part. The doctor tells me today whilst removing the staples… “try to keep her from rough and tumble play for a few more days” … I nearly snorted. Really. I couldn’t help it.

  11. anna burk says:

    I am a mom of a six year old autistic child he makes me smile everyday but the funniest time i can remember is when he decided he no longer wanted to wear his clothes in preschool.There he stood and the teacher yelling at me to help her the behavior wasnt funny but the look on the teachers face was hillarious

  12. Kaz Brooks says:

    My son’s latest joke is …that he is 4 yrsold and I (mum) am 100 yrs old… ( feel about that age sometimes!) He makes me laugh! Thanks for your excellent blog. I wrote a blog myself recently called ‘ a whole new language’ about the first time my hubby used humor to break the tension! It’s http://www.kazbrooksblog.wordpress.com

  13. Thanks A and O! Have have spent most of today reading your blogs…loving it. Then got home and wrote another one myself that
    I have been thinking about posting for a while!

  14. We – hubby and I survive on our sense of humour, it’s crass, offensive, cynical and some days out right mean. Our severely autistic 8 year old son is often the bears the brunt of our defensive mechanisms. We laugh with him and at him and because of him every day, we are very highly alone travelling through our life on Planet Autism, and most of that is due to our complete inability to understand why people out there mourn for their children or our willingness too try and understand. For the longest time I thought I was alone finding such tremendous joy and humour in some of the hardships and horrors our beautiful and terrifying son puts us through. Then I started reading other funny mums and found my release in my own blog. For the longest time I felt ashamed at not being sad or angry or depressed because or our diagnosis but not any more. I remember once joking in an i.e.p. meeting before we pulled him out of school and the looks of shock on the faces of the other people in the room made me realize hubby and I were very on our own with our views and thoughts and not long after that I started wearing the mask of complacency and started portraying as I perceived others were more comfortable with. I quickly became even more bitter and cynical that I usually was, so I gave up. Now I roll with my jokes, I don’t apologize and I have no patience for anyone than can’t cope with our joking. Damn life is hard enough and I really don’t care enough about their opinion to change who I am. Feel free to look at my blog and recommend to all who are interested but don’t be surprised if you’re offended.

  15. mattyangel says:

    I am told I am very funny and silly a lot 🙂 I make a lot of jokes but I am told I always tell people after my jokes that they are a joke. I don’t get some jokes, especially on TV but there are some I do get.

    I don’t know why but I find words that mean two things very funny. Like

    Today is cool!

    Hehe that’s funny when the day is cold but something really exciting and neat is happening also. I am even laughing now.

  16. mysonnydays says:

    I really enjoyed reading this post…what a great idea to encourage others to find light in their situation. I write a blog about my work with a 7 year old boy with autism, most of which are funny! (or I like to think so anyway…the link is http://mysonnydays.wordpress.com if you want to take a look!) Though it is sometimes hard to see positivity in a difficult situation, it is also very helpful!

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