The only thing I knew for sure was that every television show or movie about someone with autism had that one scene. You know the one. It’s where the people around them make a joke, laugh, and leave the person confused and not laughing. In most cases, they’ll take the punchline seriously until someone explains to them that it’s just humor.
And that’s what I thought would be my son’s life when I was first told he was on the autism spectrum. As his toddler years toddled by and it became apparent that he would be, at least until the present moment, non-verbal, I thought for sure that would be his life.
After all, people with autism don’t get jokes, right? That’s the Hollywood sign that someone has autism. Want to get a character trait across? Have the kids in his class say something funny and then script him to look around in confused horror. Viola – autism.
You can’t believe everything you see on TV, though. My son is proof of that. At ten years old, he may have no verbal words and express actions that others would identify as autism immediately. He does, however, laugh. He laughs more than anyone I know.
Laughter and humor, however, aren’t interchangeable. Sometimes he giggles in fits of excitement. Clapping along to Sesame Street videos, he will jump around the room and bombard us with chuckles and taps on the shoulder. Other times, his laughing is a byproduct of his sheer exhaustion right before passing out after a long day. Most times, though, it’s because I’m tickling him.
When Lucas laughs, it’s the best sound in the world. I could end right there. After all, when he was a baby, I thought autism meant no laughter. When you’re struggling with a child who is struggling to reach milestones, the first social smile could take forever. I thought a genuine laugh would be an impossibility.
Yet, it came. When it did, it was a barrage of ha-ha‘s that hasn’t stopped to this day. My boy is happy. He expresses it every day.
Humor, however, is something different. The ability to “get” a joke is different than a physical response to having fingers dragged along the bottom of your feet. That, in my mind, was completely out of the question.
Until it wasn’t.
Lucas has humor, but it was something we had to discover together. It took many early bedtime stories, where he stared at the ceiling like I wasn’t even there, to break through. It was Frog & Friends, a board book with clickable plastic frogs, that made him first share a “joke” with me.
I have always read my kids books to them with rhythm. Perhaps because of that, he recognized the words and reacted accordingly. With this particular book, I began clicking the frog’s mouths open and shut and, in a high-pitched voice, saying the final word of each page in an exaggerated way. He loves it. Sometimes, we don’t even need the book. I do it from memory and he laughs just as hard each time.
His favorite part is one page that begins, “A chilly wind whistles…” I whistle after it and then blow on his face and neck. He coils up with laughter in anticipation and loses it when I become the wind. It’s been our thing since he was two and remains one of my favorite things to do.
My silly recitation of words or song lyrics have always gotten a reaction. That’s been a long-standing source of comedy between us. It is, however, just one piece of a bigger picture.
A few years back, I found another shared piece of humor. I don’t know when it started or how, but it’s become my way of pulling him out of any bad mood in record time.
Standing face to face, I will wave my had in the air and say an over-the-top “good-bye.”
Bye, Lucas. I have to go. See you later. OK. Bye.
I will turn my body, take one step, and pivot back around on one foot. When I do, I lunge and poke his belly. He doubles over giggling out loud. We then repeat. This could go on for seconds or minutes. It never fails to get the laughter I never thought possible.
This all leads to my favorite shared joke story of all time. It was the first one that didn’t involve tickling, physical comedy, or silly voices. It just happened a few months ago.
My son stims on his iPad. It used to be a concern and, while I try not to let him get too sucked into the starting and stopping of videos all day, I let him have his fun. One afternoon, he was sitting at the table and playing the ol’ Pause/Unpause Game on Youtube.
The song was “When you’re happy and you know it”. Just as he paused it, I leaned over and pressed the button to play it back.
No, we like this song. Let’s listen to it.
Without looking up at me, he paused it again.
No, no. Let’s listen. Come on. We like it.
Again, I played it. He paused it. For the last time, I reached in myself.
No, no, no. Come on. Just one time all the way through. Let’s sing.
With that, I proceeded to loudly sing along with the tune, bellowing out each word like I was an opera singer.
If you’re happy…and…you…knoooow it….and you really want to shoooow it! If you’re happy and you know it…
At that exact moment, still not making eye contact, he paused it. To this, I dropped my head to the table mid-note and let out a sad:
For the first time, he looked up at my face. His lip turned up in a smirk I had never seen him make before and, like my daughter giving in to one of my dad jokes she doesn’t want to admit is funny, he let out a begrudging chuckle.
I told everyone about that “heh”. It was a defining moment for us and one that has kept me pushing forward every day to find more funny times we can share. While it might not be true for all children on the spectrum, it’s true for mine. Autism doesn’t mean a lack of humor or absence of laughter. If anyone thinks otherwise, then the joke’s on them.
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