Do autistic people 'get' jokes?

By Damon Rose
BBC News


Originally dubbed "little professors" by Viennese paediatrician Hans Asperger, autistic people have often been thought to be a rather serious bunch.

So do autistic people even have a sense of humour?

A new BBC podcast, 1800 Seconds on Autism, aims to dispel that no-humour myth, among other assumptions - with razor-sharp wit running through it.

The first time you heard that random joke, "What's brown and sticky?" did you get it immediately?

Robyn Steward and Jamie Knight, two autistic BBC presenters, throw the old gag around in the latest edition of their podcast.

"Poo," answers Robyn.

It's logical to think that this tripper-upper of a joke would push the mind of most people in that particular direction but Kate Fox, who describes herself as a "half-out autistic comedian" says: "It's because we think of poo, that it's funny that it's a stick."

"But sticks aren't necessarily sticky unless they've had a snail on them or something?" says Robyn, still thinking about stickiness rather than an object that is stick-like.

Jokes can take some working out and become even less funny when you have to explain them.

In a 1944 study, Hans Asperger showed funny cartoons to children on the spectrum. When they didn't laugh at his examples, he concluded that his 'little professors' had an absence of humour - an idea which kind of stuck.

At the University of Kent, Shaun May has been studying autism and comedy for a number of years, and is organising an autism arts festival in Canterbury next year.

He says: "What's happened in psychology is that it's inferred there is a deficit in sense of humour, but my hunch is it's just different. Just because you or I might find things funny, it doesn't mean we have more or less of a sense of humour."

That word "deficit" comes up a lot, as a much disliked word when you talk to autistic people. It grates. It upsets.

For a full breakdown of 'Why did the chicken cross the road?' Robin and Jamie-style, listen to 1800 Seconds On Autism, on BBC Sounds.

Many autistic people who have abilities which might be seen as better than your average person, like the ability to focus on detail such as computer code or manufacturing lines, do not understand why they are then thought to be lacking.

Fritz Anderson, a listener to Robyn and Jamie's podcast, wrote in to say: "Once you own autism, what had been a constellation of character defects condenses into something (vaguely) understandable. You can explain it's like a colour-blindness that can't see green, but can see ultraviolet.

"NTs (slang for neurotypicals) and I have our ways of making sense of the world, not all of them in common. It's not that I have a deficit, it's that our acuities don't fully overlap."

This idea works across the plain and includes humour.

In this one year - 2018 - autistic comedians have enjoyed considerable limelight. Robert White came second in Britain's Got Talent. And Hannah Gadsby, whose Netflix special Nanette focuses on gender and sexuality, was a big hit.

In an interview with Stylist magazine, Hannah Gadsby talks about being autistic and how she recognises patterns in life.

"I also know that I understand things a lot deeper than a lot of people," she says, although she's not talking about computers here, she's talking about feelings, like those she has poured into the writing of her highly personal show.

As with humour, Prof Asperger laid down the initial idea that people on the spectrum lack empathy and social understanding. Though Hannah says she now avoids social situations for her own wellbeing, clearly her analysis of feelings and emotions has hit a chord with many viewers.

Looking at the humour of others on the spectrum - such as stand-up Don Biswas, artist Tim Sharp or the absurdist Asperger's Are Us troupe for instance - it's not possible to pin down a single autistic sense of humour, says Shaun May.

"I think autistic people use humour in different ways," he says, "probably quite comparable to neurotypicals."

Kate Fox has had her own comedy programme, The Price of Happiness, on Radio 4.

She says: "When certain psychologists say things like: 'Autistic people are not funny or don't have a sense of humour' - apart from the fact that it displays that they haven't spent any time in the company of autistic people - who personally seem to me to be the funniest people around - they're also ignoring the fact that the very condition of being autistic in a non-autistic world is funny. It's full of humour. It's full of incongruity and that's brilliant."

The ways in which thought processes differ can in themselves be funny. Jamie plays on this in the podcast, and when doing presentations about autism. He talks about an incident which happened when he was being taught how to live independently.

"Many years ago I was living somewhere and I'd been on trains a lot ... and you get ON a train, but really you get IN a train. Anyway, I'd been making these pizzas in the microwave and I'd say to the carer: 'These pizzas, they're bloody awful. They're so crunchy they make my teeth hurt - I can't finish a whole one'.

"Then finally somebody stopped to watch what I was doing and I'd confused IN and ON. So I was following the instructions to the letter: I was walking up to the microwave, opening the door, putting the pizza on top of the microwave, closing the door and turning on the microwave - cos I'd mixed up IN and ON from these trains."

Step-by-step cooking instructions are a good example of where information can be left out because the writer assumes a degree of basic knowledge or linking of ideas.

Knight says they are "never complete" and that he needs to fully understand every concept before he can reach the desired end result. But he also knows it's a comic example of what can go awry if you're autistic.

Let's take that old joke about the chicken - of which, apparently, there are 23 billion on the planet at any one time.

Jamie asks Robyn: "Why did the chicken cross the road?" He quickly provides the answer: "To get to the other side."

"That's a rubbish joke," says Robyn. "I've got a better chicken-crossed-the-road joke - why did the chicken cross the road? To get away from KFC."

After pausing to think, Jamie says: "The trouble when you say 'chickens' is that I just see a very small velociraptor. And once you remember that chickens are small dinosaurs you just see them in a completely different light."

"But see," says Robyn, "if there was a chicken that knew what KFC was, they would actually cross the road to get away from it.

"If there was a human eating shop, we would cross the road to stay away from it because we wouldn't want to walk near it - especially if we were small and the shop was huge."

If Prof Asperger were around now, he could be updating his paper to include stand-up, absurdist and - thanks to Robyn - dark humour too.

Illustrations by Katie Horwich