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.