Contrary to the stereotype that people with autism lack a sense of humor, Alex is really funny—at least we think so. Certainly, language issues and problems with social skills that people with autism often have would make humor, with its verbal irony and subtleties in facial expressions and tone of voice, more difficult. Nonetheless, Alex sees himself as amusing (98% funny on his own humor rating scale) and often lets loose with a delighted, uninhibited laugh. He also has a phony laugh that he uses for humor that would make most people groan; he’ll say, “Ha, ha, ha, that’s a joke.” Somewhere in between is his Ernie from Sesame Street chuckle, which sounds like a repetition of soft k sounds. Whether he intends his comments to be funny or not, he will join in laughing if others find his remarks entertaining. He truly enjoys making people laugh.
Like most kids, many of Alex’s funniest comments are unintentional. For example, when we’re watching NASCAR races, he doesn’t hide his disdain for the Busch brothers, Kurt and especially Kyle. If they crash their cars at some point in a race but walk away unhurt, Alex will gleefully say, “Kyle/Kurt Busch crashed! That’s okay; we don’t like him anyway!” Perhaps his blunt honesty is what makes this remark funny to us. When he was little and didn’t want to do a particular task, such as picking up his toys, he’d make us grin by giving the excuse, “That’s too hard for little hands!” During his adolescent years, he would get frustrated because I wouldn’t let him do everything he wanted to do. Having taught middle school for several years, I knew the importance of consistent rules, and this frustrated Alex, leading him to make the following observation that we found amusing: “Mommy’s bad words are don’t and can’t.” When he knew he’d been unable to persuade me, he’d repeat my words in a defeated tone, “I know, I know, ‘that’s too bad, Alex!’” Then he’d walk away, muttering, “She never changes her mind.” Recently, we asked him if he liked being an only child. He affirmed that he was happy to be the only child, but we questioned him in a different way, trying to see if he missed not having a brother or sister. He looked at us as though we were crazy and candidly said, “Mommy’s too OLD!” I guess he mistakenly thought we were considering adding to the family and wanted to make sure that wasn’t going to happen.
Even when he was little, Alex understood irony and could use his limited language to make jokes. For instance, he liked to be asked math problems, but he’d deliberately give the wrong answer, typically adding one to the correct answer. To illustrate, he’d tell us that the answer to two plus two was five. We could watch his eyes mischievously dart as he thought of the right answer, then add one to make it wrong, say the incorrect answer with a grin on his face, and then giggle as he watched our response. As we’d tell him to try again, he’d giggle even harder and say the wrong answer again. This was a fun game for him, and we liked watching him get a kick out of teasing us. Similarly he’d subtract ten years from dates, such as saying that he was born in 1981 instead of 1991. Of course, he knew the right date, but he liked to kid us by saying the incorrect one. When he was older, he thought it was funny to say ridiculous things just to get a response. Every time we drove past the small lake a few blocks from our home, he thought it was hysterical to say, “Just drive into the lake!” We’d hear him guffawing in the back seat, tickled by his own joke. A few weeks ago, he was pleased that he was able to make us genuinely laugh at one of his comments. Ed asked him why I don’t like Bob Dylan, who is one of Ed’s favorite singers. Alex grinned and said, “Because he sings like this…” then he launched into a decent imitation of Dylan’s incoherent warbling [my interpretation, not Ed’s], making both of us laugh out loud, which made Alex laugh, as well. If, indeed, “Laughter is the best medicine,” Alex’s entertaining sense of humor should keep us not only happy but also healthy.
“Then were our mouths filled with laughter, and our tongues with singing. Then they said among the nations, the Lord has done great things for them.” Psalm 126:2