“Tell Me a Joke.” My Autistic Son’s Attempts at Humor

Now that he is thirteen, Kyle has made amazing progress in adapting to life with Autism. Each weekday morning he dresses himself, makes his own lunch, and catches the school bus. He is able to do these things so well because of his strong inclination to follow scheduled routines. He has even learned to carry on short conversations, ask for things he wants, and share brief information about his day.

The Mystery of Humor

However, humor often eludes him, because it is such an abstract concept. For most children and adults with Autism, predictability and order rule their world. Yet humor is unpredictable. It’s abstract. As my mentor, author Rick Walton, once suggested, humor is “surprise without threat or promise.” In other words, it’s the unexpected punch line, the ironic twist, the sudden gag, the unpredictable outcome. In Kyle’s brain, which functions a lot like a calculator or data processor, humor “does not compute.” At least not completely.

Twisted Humor

That isn’t to say that Kyle doesn’t laugh and find things funny. But his sense of humor is sometimes a little twisted. When my sister was in a car accident a few years ago, Kyle found it quite hilarious. “Michele crashed the blue car,” he’d say to her with a huge grin and chuckle. In that accident, my sister sustained serious injuries to her foot and required surgery and physical therapy. Because she knows and loves Kyle, she wasn’t offended by his remarks. Yet I worry. Kyle often laughs when people fall down or get injured. Plane crashes on television or movies make him laugh. Someday, that could potentially upset someone.

I believe Kyle’s fascination with accidents started as a young child, when he watched a certain television program for kids where model-trains had mini-crashes, splashing mud everywhere. The narrator would say, “UH-OH,” or “OH DEAR.” Because it was clear that something “wrong” had occurred, Kyle was able to categorize this as humor. He had the “surprise” part of humor figured out. But the “without threat” element wasn’t there.

Alien Concepts

It is a bizarre thought that anyone should have to learn humor. It comes so naturally for most of us. Think about it—how would you describe to an alien what “humor” is? It would be like explaining “blue” to a blind person. We just know what humor is, because it’s programmed into our human psyche. Not Kyle. He must learn humor. And so, each day at school he is taught a joke to recite. I am supposed to ask him to “tell me a joke,” and he rattles it off. Then I laugh (which is sometimes hard to do convincingly), so Kyle can see my reaction. Ideally he then learns how humor “works,” at least mechanically.

Here are a few of my favorite “Kyle” jokes:

Why did the spy spend the day in bed?

–Because he was told to stay undercover.

What falls down but doesn’t get hurt?

–Rain.

Whether or not humor can be learned by an autistic child is probably debatable. But Kyle has never ceased to amaze me. We’ll give this joke routine a try. After all, it’s an attempt at a deeper level of human connection. And it’s not crucial to me whether he ever completely “gets” it. I’ve learned to be delighted by Kyle’s progress, on Kyle’s terms, at Kyle’s pace.