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.