Autism is a complex neurological disorder that affects individuals differently. From social behavior to communication, individuals on the autism spectrum often face unique challenges.
One such challenge often observed is inappropriate laughter, which can create social hurdles for autistic individuals.
In this comprehensive guide, we’ll delve into the topic of autism and laughter, offering insights and practical parenting tips to help navigate these challenges.
An Insight into Autism
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder that affects communication and behavior.
Although it can be diagnosed at any age, it’s a “developmental disorder” because symptoms generally become apparent in the first two years of life.
Autism is known as a “spectrum” disorder because there’s wide variation in the type and severity of symptoms individuals experience.
Autistic people may exhibit various symptoms, including challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech, and nonverbal communication.
They may also have unique strengths and challenges.
A notable aspect of autism is the oft-misunderstood relationship between autism and emotions, particularly laughter.
Let’s dive deeper!
Autism and Laughter: A Complex Relationship
Laughter, a universal expression of joy and amusement, can often present itself differently in individuals with autism.
While laughter is a common way of communicating happiness, the triggers for laughter among autistic individuals can vary significantly from those of their neurotypical peers.
According to recent research, children with autism often exhibit “solitary laughter.” This means they laugh when alone in response to stimuli that don’t typically evoke laughter in others.
They also rarely laugh in response to others’ laughter unless they attempt to mimic the sound.
Social Interaction and Laughter
Laughter plays a crucial role in fostering relationships. It can serve as a social bonding tool or, when misunderstood, can create barriers.
For autistic individuals, understanding the social cues related to laughter can pose a challenge.
They might not find things funny that others do, leading to feelings of isolation and misunderstanding.
I Went Through the Same Thing…Here’s How I Handled It
I actually grew up with high-functioning Aspergers (autism now, though, according to the DSM) and briefly struggled with laughing out of context for a few years when I started grade school.
My case wasn’t particularly serious, all things considered. I didn’t laugh when people got hurt or anything like that.
But I realized that I was laughing at the wrong things in social settings, and the other kids were starting to pick up on it.
And when you’re a kid, as soon as you start picking up that the other kids think you’re a couple of fries short of a Happy Meal, it gets to you.
There were two things I did that helped me to stop laughing at appropriate times, and they were:
- Developed a habit of reading the social cues of others around me to figure out what made them laugh (as well as WHEN to laugh).
- Studied pop culture through sitcoms and movies, if you can believe that.
Now, I also had a ton of help from occupational therapists, speech therapists, and counselors of every kind.
I don’t doubt that natural maturity helped my situation quite a bit as well.
But as a child with high-functioning autism, you’d be amazed at everything you could learn by watching others interact.
Watching the sitcoms and analyzing the characters’ reactions to jokes or insults helped to give me a sense of the right time to laugh.
And to this day, there are still jokes I don’t understand.
But instead of hoping I laughed at the right thing, I’ll usually just pop off some joke about how the original one went over my head.
Understanding Inappropriate Laughter in Autism
Inappropriate laughter in autism often stems from a struggle to understand the social “rules” of humor.
For instance, if an autistic child witnesses someone getting hurt, they might laugh, not out of cruelty, but due to a misunderstanding of the situation.
This kind of response can confuse others, leading to potential social challenges.
Decoding the Types of Humor
Understanding the types of humor can provide a framework to comprehend the laughter responses in autistic individuals better.
Here are some common types of humor and the potential reactions from someone on the autism spectrum:
Sarcasm, a form of humor that relies on irony and distorted meanings, can be especially puzzling for autistic individuals.
This form of humor often involves saying something but meaning the opposite, which can be confusing for someone who struggles with understanding social cues and tends towards literal thinking.
Dry humor, characterized by delivering jokes with a severe or impassive expression, can sometimes resonate with autistic individuals.
This form of humor often highlights situations’ literal and absurd aspects, which can align with the logical thinking pattern of many on the autism spectrum.
Satire, a humor form that uses irony and exaggeration to criticize or mock, can sometimes appeal to autistic individuals, especially when paired with literal or dry humor.
However, as satire often involves a nuanced understanding of social norms, it can also be challenging for some on the spectrum.
Slapstick humor, involving exaggerated physical activity that exceeds the boundaries of common sense, can sometimes conflict with the understanding of an autistic individual.
While slapstick humor often involves harmless physical comedy, an autistic person might struggle to distinguish between real-life pain and staged comedic physical mishaps.
Parenting Strategies for Coping with Inappropriate Laughter
For parents and caregivers of autistic children, handling instances of inappropriate laughter can be challenging.
However, progress can be made with consistency, patience, and understanding.
In this section, we’ll explore practical parenting strategies that can help you cope with inappropriate laughter in your child with autism.
- Create a structured environment: Establishing a structured environment can provide your child with a sense of security and predictability. Consistent routines and schedules can help minimize anxiety or triggers that may lead to inappropriate laughter. Ensure that your child’s daily activities, such as mealtimes, playtime, and bedtime, follow a consistent routine.
- Establish a visual support system: Visual supports, such as visual schedules and social stories, can be invaluable tools for children with autism. Use visual aids to help your child understand appropriate social behavior and expectations. Create a visual schedule that includes expected behaviors in different situations to provide clarity and reduce confusion.
- Engage in social skills training: Social skills training can assist your child in understanding appropriate emotional expressions and responses. Utilize resources such as social skills groups, therapists, or specialized programs that teach social cues, empathy, and appropriate laughter in social contexts.
- Teach various communication strategies: Encouraging effective communication can help your child express their needs, emotions, and frustrations appropriately. Teach alternative ways to communicate their feelings through words, signs, or assistive communication devices. Encourage open dialogue and provide opportunities for your child to express themselves without resorting to inappropriate laughter.
- Prioritize sensory regulation: Inappropriate laughter may be linked to sensory sensitivities experienced by children with autism. Create a sensory-friendly environment by identifying and managing sensory triggers. Offer sensory breaks or calming strategies, such as deep pressure techniques, soothing music, or sensory toys, to help your child self-regulate and reduce the likelihood of inappropriate laughter.
- Reinforce appropriate behavior: Positive reinforcement is a powerful tool for shaping behavior. Praise and reward your child when they exhibit appropriate laughter and emotional responses. Use a system of rewards, such as a sticker chart or a token economy, to reinforce desired behaviors and encourage your child to engage in more socially acceptable laughter.
- Seek professional support: Don’t hesitate to contact professionals specializing in autism and behavior management. Consulting with a pediatrician, psychologist, or behavior analyst can provide valuable insights and guidance tailored to your child’s needs.
Conclusion: Embracing the Laughter
Understanding the relationship between autism and laughter can provide valuable insights into the unique world of an autistic individual.
While their laughter might not always align with societal expectations, it’s a reminder of their unique perspective on the world.
Every autistic individual is different, and their understanding of humor and laughter will vary.
With patience, experience, and consistent guidance, we can help them navigate social norms while celebrating their unique sense of humor.
- Mireault, G. C., Crockenberg, S. C., Sparrow, J. E., Cousineau, K., Pettinato, C., & Woodard, K. (2015). Laughing matters: Infant humor in the context of parental affect. Journal of experimental child psychology, 136, 30-41. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jecp.2015.03.012