The Joke’s on Me!

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In middle school, the other students frequently played cruel jokes and tricks on me. I tended to believe everything people told me, so when a girl I desperately wanted as a friend called me and invited me to the mall for lunch, I went—and waited for more than an hour until I realized I’d been pranked and called my mother to pick me up.

After similar tricks with somewhat different circumstances—because I never fell for the exact thing twice—I stopped listening to fashion advice (for example, that cutting my hair short would make me popular) and turned down all invitations to parties, movies, and the mall. But until I did, I was an endless source of my peers’ amusement.

The pain of being the butt of someone else’s joke comes back to me whenever I read fiction that depicts characters on the autism spectrum who repeatedly take idioms and other expressions literally, or fail to understand the double meaning of words in embarrassing ways. Whether these misunderstandings are supposed to be a source of humor, or meant to convey the author’s image of how people on the spectrum are different from their peers, I feel that they’re at my expense and the expense of readers like me. When a child character on the spectrum spends two days trying to cut down a large tree with a quarter because building instructions call for “quarter-cut oak,” young readers think it’s funny—or maybe pathetic—that the character is so clueless. Seriously, we can look things up on the Internet. In fact, many folks on the spectrum are really good at looking things up on the Internet. And when a nineteen-year-old character is still bumbling into misunderstandings of common idioms, it ceases to be believable and instead becomes insulting.

While everyone on the spectrum is unique (there’s a saying “if you’ve seen one person with autism, you’ve seen one person with autism”), many of us do learn about idioms and their meanings, especially those of us who’ve studied other languages as I have and the protagonist in the book in question has. While we can visualize and joke about literal meanings, having a character continually follow the literal meaning to the point of embarrassment implies that we cannot learn the difference. Furthermore, some authors who are not on the spectrum repeatedly portray those embarrassing situations as funny. Maybe they’re funny to readers like them, but they’re not funny to us. Do that in your writing, and you’re not laughing with us. You’re laughing at us.

So what constitutes appropriate humor when writing a character on the autism spectrum?

One aspect is respect. It may not be apparent in this article, but I have a fairly decent sense of humor that sometimes people do “get.” In your work, include jokes and funny comments you’ve heard from people who are on the spectrum. Become familiar with the work of professional comedians on the spectrum, particularly some of the younger comedians who have come forward with their diagnosis. Doing so will puncture some stereotypes of persons on the spectrum as humorless or unable to understand humor. Support comedians on the spectrum and laugh with us.

Respect extends to when one of us tells you something is not funny. Do your homework. If you’re not on the spectrum, don’t assume you know our perspective because you have a niece, a nephew, or even a child on the spectrum. Get several people on the spectrum to read your work and point out potential problems. And when someone identifies a problem, don’t argue. Listen.

A second aspect is finding the universal—shared beliefs and longings. For instance, in my novel Rogue, which portrays a fourteen-year-old girl on the spectrum in search of a friend and her own X-Man-like special power, Kiara does tend to believe everything she hears. It leads to a somewhat funny, somewhat poignant moment when she meets a strange boy—one who turns out to be a friend of her older brother—in a difficult situation, and he makes a joke that she misunderstands.

Now I’m really in trouble….”Don’t tell Max about this.”

“Why would I?” the kid says. “Max would just love to hear that his little sister blew herself up doing something stupid.”

“He…would?” My voice cracks. Of course. I’m the accident. The one who shouldn’t have been born.

“No.” The kid cuts off a laugh. “Big brothers don’t like their younger sisters to blow up.”

He gives me a funny expression. A smirk, which is supposed to mean he’s joking about big brothers and younger sisters. (p. 74)

How many tweens and teens don’t get along with their siblings? And older siblings whose only-child position ended with the arrival of a younger brother or sister (a position that Kiara and older boy, Antonio, share) may make their resentment clear. Over and over. And for years. So when Antonio uses sarcasm that Kiara takes literally, readers involved in an intense sibling rivalry can relate to her feelings of being unwanted. Even without Asperger’s, they may believe Antonio’s line.

Exploring universal themes and concerns stands in contrast to humor that makes persons on the autism spectrum appear weird, exotic, or objects of pity—in short, the Other. And “othering” goes hand-in-hand with the kind of hurtful jokes, bullying, and exclusion that many people on the spectrum already experience far too often. We are people with the same feelings and desires as everyone else. We not the punch line for a bored classmate, or a writer looking to amuse readers without making the effort to listen to us and get to know us.



About Author

Lyn Miller-Lachmann

Lyn Miller-Lachmann is the author of Rogue (Nancy Paulsen Books, 2013), the story of a eighth grader with undiagnosed Asperger’s and an X-Men obsession, in search of a friend and her own special power. Lyn has also written the historical YA novel Gringolandia (Curbstone, 2009) and its forthcoming companion, Surviving Santiago (Running Press, 2015) and translated the picture book The World in a Second (Enchanted Lion, 2015) by Isabel Minhós Martins and Bernardo Carvalho from Portuguese to English.

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11 Comments

  1. Thank you for writing this! This bothers me as well, both because scenes intended to be humor sometimes elicit memories of shame for me, and because some of the taking-things-literally seems inconsistent with the character’s level of linguistic understanding (the quarter-cut oak in particular).

  2. Jane Meyerding on

    You might like my trilogy of novels featuring an autistic woman protagonist. She often processes (and savors) literal meanings in her mind, which clearly indicates that she has learned to do so (as have I). The titles, in order, and all available via Amazon.com, are “Mapping Charlie,” “Forest for the Trees,” and “Ambivalent Advocate.”

  3. Thank you for your comments, Elizabeth, Yael, and Jane. The problem with inappropriate humor that triggers shame is that it ruins what are otherwise valuable and insightful book because they then become so painful to read.

  4. That’s so interesting.. My son had a phase where he did not get metaphors and was taking things literally more than other kids. That was when he was about 6. He is quite eloquent tho, has an astute sense of intonation (in others) and spend literally about 2 years testing his sense of humour, asking us “is this funny:…?” while obviously studying other people making jokes. While he still struggles w some deadpan jokes or sarkasm – and of course, he is 9 – he has developed a wicked sense of humour, with wordplay, imitation and somewhat dark elements way beyond what he calls the “silly jokes” his classmates make. People get stuck on the while ‘taking things literally’ because it’s so easy to imitate in fiction. It removes the capability of learning and maturing from the autistics shown as such.. It makes them look dumb.
    What is true tho is that my son has the same expectance if authenticity in him, so like you, he could easily fall for the fake friend, the insincere fashion advice.. He has learned a lot about humour, but I hope he won’t be the object if this type of ridicule to soon and too often 🙁

  5. I am writing this from a creative writing point of view as I am studying a creative writing course at University and currently writing my own trilogy. I am on the spectrum and I find what you’ve written to be infuriating! All fiction includes somewhat a character on the spectrum whether its unintentionally or intentionally… think of the Divergent series… five factions but if you dont conform to one of societies ideals then you are different and a threat…
    May I remind you this is all fiction… so yes its going to offend someone. no doubt ‘The Fault in Our stars’ pissed some people of who have children with cancer… however you don’t see a conversional article about that because people get over themselves. As a writer, who writes from dark and sometimes dangerous topics, I expect someone to get offended. BUT I don’t expect people to take offence because they don’t feel i represented them on a personal level. I may include a character with autism in future writings but if I do I will not expect people like yourself to be offended because I have not represented them how YOU would, as you said in this article: ‘you see one person on the spectrum means you have seen one person on the spectrum’.

    (Funny when your own writing fails you)

    Thanks for providing me information I will use for a debate in class next week.

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  9. I agree. I find the “autistic character takes everything literally” stereotype to be very inaccurate. Most of us do learn the meanings of common idioms, and we can learn to understand jokes and even (gasp) make some of our own.

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