Inside Look at an Outsider: Jokes


April Fool’s Day, or April 1, is an annual national observance every year.  Most people look forward to a day filled with funny jokes and pranks to share with others.

It can be a challenging day for some people on the autism spectrum, though.  Hans Asperger studied individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome (a form of high-functioning autism) and concluded that they have “an absence of humour.”

Humor helps to reinforce relationships and can be tied to one’s self identity.  People on the spectrum may have a harder time understanding jokes that are more figurative, but that’s okay!

I have known people who become offended if there isn’t immediate understanding and laughter when they tell their jokes.  Joke-telling is tied to their identity.  It would help those on the spectrum if people understand that some people may need time to digest jokes and that it may not have anything to do with one’s joke-telling ability.  The listener may take the time to research the joke afterwards, to develop understanding.  The person you told the joke to may tell you that they got the joke, but later.  And that’s okay!

But what about Asperger's assessment?

Was Asperger's Humor Assessment Correct?

According to Dr. Claire Jack, a therapist who has autism and who treats those on the spectrum,

"Personally, the question strikes me as a bit daft—probably because I find things funny all the time."

She thinks that neurodiverse individuals indeed have a sense of humor.  However, there are differences in how people on the spectrum perceive and or display humor:

  • Those on the spectrum may not view humor as a way to socially interact.  For instance, those on the spectrum may miss cues to politely laugh at a joke.
  • Laughter at inopportune times may cause trouble for those on the spectrum.  Specifically, she names two situations which are socially inappropriate times to laugh:
    • Laughing hysterically at something that may not seem funny to most people and/or
    • nervous laughter that may offend neurotypical people, who may perceive the laughter in a wrong way.
  • Not getting jokes because they don't seem amusing to a the person on the spectrum.

Understanding differences in understanding humor involves understanding the process of comprehending humor.

What Happens Before the Punchline?

Many articles that I researched referred to an article by David M. Emerich, etal and humor comprehension.

According to the article, humor comprehension is comprised of:

  • Hearing the joke.
  • Hearing the punchline.
  • The surprising ending may not align with how things normally occur.
  • The listener tries to “connect the “incongruous” ending by tying the punch line to the body of the joke.”
  • The neurotypical listener will be able to flexibly think about the meaning.

Thinking flexibly seems to be the major force behind not understanding jokes.  Thinking in black and white tends to create a foil.

Thinking Differently

Several studies on EBSCO have examined humor comprehension by people on the autism spectrum:

For instance, when first hearing the joke about the chicken crossing the road, someone on the spectrum might wonder how the chicken ended up being near a road in the first place or what kind of chicken was crossing, etc.

Getting caught up in the details of the joke itself may distract the listener from comprehending the punchline.  Therefore, if one has the time to think about the joke, one may eventually see the humor.

And I certainly don’t mind when people laugh with me when we try to figure out the joke together!

People With Autism Who Are Funny

Podcasters on 1800 Seconds on Autism would disagree with Hans Asberger that people with autism lack a sense of humor.  They would argue that people with autism may be:

  • Stand-up comedians
  • Absurdists
  • Dark humorists

They feel that having autism doesn’t mean that you have a deficit.  It just means that you may see the world in a different way, like how color-blind people see colors.

Hannah Gadsby, who has autism, has had a successful stand-up routine on Netflix.

Absurdists like Asperger’s Are Us Comedy Troupe do not poke fun or mention autism.  They just like to tell absurdist jokes!

Robyn from 1800 Seconds on Autism ends the article by mentioning the chicken crossing the road joke also.  She says that the “chicken crossing the road is trying to get away from KFC!”

Please let me know if you have any questions in the comments below!

Books About Autism and Humor

Why Johnny Doesn't Flap NT Is OK!, book cover
The cognitive neuroscience of humor, book cover
Autism, book cover
Stand-Up Comedy, book cover
Hokum!, book cover