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Humor and the ASD Brain

Joking is an art and not all of us are good at it. A joke told poorly can ‘go over like a lead balloon’ which is an idiom for something that fails. We use idioms a lot in our society but children on the autism spectrum find them difficult to decipher. They tend to take things literally, so a balloon full of lead would not make any sense to them.

Understanding jokes and idioms require two levels of communication – one takes in the literal meaning and the other evaluates it. The second part of this process is usually where children with autism get stuck. Coming to realize that the intent of a statement can differ from what is actually being said is an obstacle that most can’t get past.

Studies show that these two levels of communication come from different areas in the brain. The left hemisphere of the brain helps a person understand the literal meaning of a joke or idiom. The right side of the brain, the frontal lobe in particular, is responsible for interpreting context and double meanings.

Unfortunately for children with ASD this part of their brain is typically not making the necessary connections it needs to understand the abstract language of jokes and idioms. Therefore, jokes and idioms are often lost in translation.

The more complex humor is, the more it requires an understanding of context, metaphor and the contradictory meaning of words. Anything ambiguous, such as an idiom, often leaves a child with ASD scratching their head in confusion or accepting the statement as fact.

An idiom is any phrase that is non-literal and implies a totally different meaning. It can sound like a foreign language to some. What does getting sick have to do with dropping flies? How does curiosity kill cats? Why would a joke be the same as pulling someone’s leg?

And the list continues...

Wearing your heart on your sleeve.

A blessing in disguise.

Bite your tongue.

Spitting image.

A piece of cake.

Pull the plug.

An arm and a leg.

Humor is important to your child’s social development because being able to tell jokes and laugh with others helps them interact socially and make personal connections. So what can you do to trigger and create the neural pathways necessary to help expand your child’s sense of humor and understanding of jokes and idioms? Here are five strategies to implement.

1) Train your child to seek clarifying information when they are confused. The trick is to get them to realize when something doesn’t make sense. Rather than accepting the information as fact, teach them to take it to the next step - ask an adult to explain.

2) Focus on visual humor when possible. If your child is a visual learner, sticking with slapstick comedy, cartoons and comic books that are read aloud while your child follows the pictures is a good place to start before proceeding to the telling of jokes and more abstract humor.

3) Intentionally teach idioms. Gradually expose your child to idioms and explain their meaning. Make it a point to use them or instruct your child directly by using homemade flashcards. This will help the neurons in their brains to make new connections that will help them develop a better understanding.

4) Teach your child one or two jokes he or she can share socially. Simple knock-knock jokes are a good place to start. After a while your child will start creating his own jokes but will require guidance to make sure the punch lines are headed in the right direction. The goal is to ensure that his schoolmates will laugh with him and not at him.

5) Practice, practice, practice. Never think this task is complete. As your child gains more experience in stretching her brain to create new neural pathways, you can raise your efforts to a more sophisticated use of humor. As your child matures her understanding will get easier but taking the steps above will give them a wonderful head start.

And never forget that a family that laughs together, has less stress and grows together in amazing ways.

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