Do autistic people ‘get’ jokes?

Do individuals with autism lack a sense of humour?

Do Autistic People Understand Sarcasm?

Why ‘Robot’ Jokes Are Hurtful to Many Autistic People

These are actual headlines, pulled from Google. Seems there is an unusually negative media landscape surrounding autism and humour. As an autistic person, who has been writing humour since 1989, this sort of thing really bothers me. I just don’t get it. On the positive side, I’ve notice that increasingly the term “myth” is coming up; headlines like these are slowly being debunked (as it should, since people with neurological differences should not be expected to find every joke funny). But why is autism and humour worthy of special notice and discussion?

I think sense of humour is incredibly individualistic; it defines us – more so than taste in music, I believe. Thus, sense of humour helps us relate to others, develop bonds, share experiences and nurture lasting friendships. But not for me. Not really. Well, maybe a bit. My story isn’t that straight forward. Sense of humour can only get you so far, but I would like to share how my autism affects my appreciation, interpretation and use of humour – and help debunk the myth!

Thinking back to my own experiences, I’ve often been criticized for not getting a joke – as per the above headlines. Sometimes hit with that old nugget: “You’ve no sense of humour!”. It seems to me that is a knee jerk comment from people who are not funny to begin with, thus insecure and defensive. At times, I’ve been honest (alas – a fault of many autistic people!) and stated simply that the joke was not funny, perhaps including an in-depth analysis why not. But that’s not what they want to hear, is it? People don’t like blunt comments like that. They like you to laugh along, even if you don’t find it funny. It makes them feel good; satiates their ego, I guess. Thus, throughout my life – and I’m being honest again – I’ve forced a fake, uncomfortable laugh just to make someone feel good.

I understand that autistic people do this all the time – faking things – to be accommodating and “fit in”; “masking”, we call it (thus being autistic is a 24/7 job for me, in addition to a full-time job). I’m been told I was robotic many, many times – as per the above headlines. Why is that? I’ve never found it amusing. Was it my mannerisms, facial expressions, slow careful movements, work ethic, focus or deep, droll monotone delivery? Maybe it’s all six, but – when I question people – I hope to never hear this again: “I was only joking!” I think this phrase should be banned. If you tell a joke and it fails, or makes someone mad, then do not reverse; accept what you have done and learn from it. People should be allowed to fail – to make mistakes. I like to think people can learn and evolve over time. Sense of humour is such a positive trait; it can help one learn and evolve. It’s listed as a positive attribute everywhere – job descriptions, dating sites etc. People like people with a sense of humour – or so they say. Despite this, do you think it is used enough? Are we accommodating different senses of humour? Do we allow people to make mistakes and learn from it? I’m not sure, but I do feel (and maybe I’m wrong) most people like a safe, ordinary, obvious sense of humour with the edges worn off. I’m not sure that’s what I can deliver.

I began to notice that my sense of humour was “diverging” in high school; high school tends to magnify then attack differences, getting you ready for the “real world”. I remember a person in high school who was so well liked by the girls because he told jokes. So what? They weren’t his jokes. Some of them were jokes I heard the day before, but that person was unpopular and didn’t get the same laugh. Some of them were my jokes! What infuriated me was his delivery was so simplistic and lacking in creativity. I don’t think he could create his own original material if his life depended on it. My humour, at the time, relied on careful observation, improvisation, absurdity, mimicry, impersonation, wordplay, stream of conscious monologues and surreal imagery – still does. However, even though I felt my humour was more sophisticated (oh, to be young and arrogant!), he was more popular and somehow “funnier” than me. My issues with what was considered “funny” didn’t end there.

In high school, Cheech and Chong and MacLean & MacLean’sToilet Rock were lost on me (sorry!). Growing up in a conservative small town, that had well publicized problems with drink and drugs, I was always criticized for that. This trend continued throughout my life. People have always tried to turn me on to their comic interests – with the best intentions, I hope. It always ended in tears. Millions of people liked Home Improvement. I hated it. Millions of people liked Two and a Half Men and Big Bang Theory. Not I. I find Big Bang Theory derivative (sorry!). I really liked Revenge of the Nerds back in the 80s. I see that show as just a rehash of the “nerd wants to get laid” trope.

But why am I going on and on about this? Why the sour apples? Well, owing to my autism, I remember everything in great detail – going back to the age of one. That’s part of it. I can’t let go. Things that happened to me decades ago are as crystal clear as the lunch I had a half hour ago. In addition, starting in high school, I began to realize trends that would continue throughout my life. Although I did not know I was autistic back in high school, my sense of humor – and my failure to find most jokes funny – ran against the grain. As a result, I’d have to work extra hard to use my humour to connect with others.

Humour, like taste in music, helps me categorize people. Some people may object to being categorized, but it is a coping strategy for me. Rightly or wrongly, I only want to be around people with similar interests and tastes, since it is less work for me. I find it easier to understand and converse freely when I share some common ground. Unfortunately, as is often the case, people grow out of adolescent interests; but I stick with them. People move on – marriages, children, mortgages etc. – and I’m left behind. But I don’t (often) complain. I have humour to help me cope.

Obviously, I don’t agree with the above headlines. But if you goggle “Do individuals with autism lack a sense of humour?”, you’ll find a thought provoking journal article. I prefer facts. I agree with the conclusions reached. Instead of thinking people with ASD have no sense of humour, it is preferable to say they have an “atypical” sense of humour. The paper does a very good job of explaining why I do not find certain jokes funny (I won’t repeat it here). By all accounts, and contrary to popular belief, I have a very well developed, unique sense of humour – and I get sarcasm! I hate it when people warn me up front that they are sarcastic. My feeling is, if I like their sarcasm, I should be able to discover it and evaluate it myself. I’ll reach my own conclusions, thank you. To be honest, I’ve been told that I am very sarcastic. I try not to be too sarcastic though. I think sarcasm is dubious at best. Oscar Wilde famously said: “Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, but the highest form of intelligence.” He was only half right.

In conclusion, humour and I have a long and complicated relationship. I suppose I have done what I can with my writing and, more recently, with my short films and play scripts – even dabbling in improv. I do have a certain comic sensibility which I know many share, but I wouldn’t say it was the norm. It seems my particular comic sensibilities sprung from the 70s, with SCTV, Saturday Night Live, Steve Martin, British sitcoms, The Marx Brothers, Monty Python, surrealism and absurdist literature (Kafka and Kurt Vonnegut et al.) Like other autistic people, I learned through culture. I examined it closely; I mimicked it. It made me who I am today and it certainly coloured my sense of humour. It’s “atypical”, but it’s certainly there – if people take the time to look.


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