What the Research Says
“There exists sufficient evidence to suggest that laughter has some positive, quantifiable effects on certain aspects of health. In this era of evidence-based medicine, it would be appropriate for laughter to be used as a complementary/alternative medicine in the prevention and treatment of illnesses.” (Mora-Ripoll, 2011)
Although there is research showing that individuals with autism and Asperger syndrome are impaired in the area of humor appreciation, there is some evidence showing that humor can be understood, taught and displayed by individuals affected by autism. (Lyons & Fitzgerald, 2004) In a study conducted by Hutchins in 2022 the tendency to use humor was greater among individuals with autism who were taught how to use humor and appreciate its use. (Hutchins, 2022).
Autism, Literal Language and Concrete Thinking
Individuals with autism are known to take things literally. Meaning taking words in their usual or most basic sense without metaphor. So, if you were to tell me you’re going to give me a million dollars and I say, “When pigs fly”, an autistic individual may be thinking of pigs in the sky instead of understanding that this metaphor or figure of speech means “that’s never going to happen”.
Teaching Humor to Individuals with ASD
When approaching teaching humor to individuals with autism it’s important to have an understanding that humor is based in social communication. First, teach the individual how to understand the social language of humor. Then, we can teach them how to deliver humor by telling jokes, using common phrases and idioms. Last, there is timing, interaction and social aspects involved with humor to be considered. This may be one of the most important aspects of humor to teach, the unspoken social rules of using humor.
Teaching Understanding of Humor to Individuals with ASD
Prior to teaching an individual with autism how to use humor we first need to teach them how to understand the social language of humor. Start by teaching the meanings behind jokes, figures of speech and when we use humor. Teaching your loved one when humor is appropriate and pointing out to them when humor is being used can help them identify when others are using humor in other settings.
Teaching Jokes, Common Sayings and Idioms to Individuals with ASD
Start by teaching simple jokes, common sayings and idioms that your loved ones have heard. As mentioned above, start by teaching the meanings behind sayings or jokes that you use in your daily life or that have been overheard by peers at school or work. Next, grab a joke book or search for puns, figures of speech or idioms that relate to your loved one's interests.
For example, if your loved one likes to play Legos you could try teaching this joke:
Q: Why was grandpa so happy when he finished the LEGO set?
A: The box said 5-12 years, but he got it done in 3 weeks...
Teaching Delivery of Humor to Individuals with ASD
One of the most important aspects of teaching humor is teaching when, where and who to use humor with. Here are some simple rules for how to use humor appropriately:
- Don’t use humor when you are first getting to know someone. Instead, be serious until you learn more about them.
- Don’t repeat jokes.
- Make sure the joke is appropriate for the age of the person you’re telling it to.
- Do not tell jokes that may insult or offend someone
- Only tell jokes when you know the listener will understand it.
- Before using humor, think about if it’s the right time
- Pay attention to your humor feedback.
The middle of your teacher’s lecture is not a good time to tell a joke. If others don’t smile, giggle or laugh after you use humor, that’s feedback they may not find what you said funny or humorous.
Seek feedback when Humor is Used
Teach your loved ones to check for humor or literal meaning. When they’re in social situations and others make a comment, or statement that may be confusing, teach them to check for understanding.
For example, they may ask: “Did you mean that?” “Are you serious or was that a joke?” or “What did you mean when you said …?”
If your loved one is the one telling the joke or using humor, teach them how to pay attention to the feedback provided by others to learn if their humor was a success. If the others smile or laugh, they likely find the joke or humor funny. If they did not giggle, rather they frown, turn or walk away or show expressions or body language indicating they’ve become uncomfortable the humor used was likely not appropriate for the person or setting.
This is one of the best strategies to teach your loved one with autism to advocate to understand the social language that is being used around them and in social situations with peers.
- Hobson, R. P. (2012). Autism, literal language and concrete thinking: Some developmental considerations. Metaphor and Symbol, 27(1), 4-21.
- Hutchins, T. L. (2022, August). A Review of the Nature and Development of Humor Appreciation and Considerations for Teaching Humor to Autistic Persons. In Seminars in Speech and Language (Vol. 43, No. 04, pp. 347-360). Thieme Medical Publishers, Inc.
- Lyons, V., & Fitzgerald, M. (2004). Humor in autism and Asperger syndrome. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 34(5), 521.
- Mora-Ripoll, R. (2011). Potential health benefits of simulated laughter: A narrative review of the literature and recommendations for future research. Complementary Therapies in Medicine, 19(3), 170-177.