Anyone who has spent significant time with a person on the autism spectrum knows that slang, idioms, and jokes can be taken quite literally. Of course as children, everyone has to learn how to navigate these social situations. Most people learn to grasp these concepts without much thought or effort on their part. The thing is, people with autism don’t just “pick up” these frequently used conversation scenarios.
Over my lifetime, I have amassed a file (in my brain of course) of all these seemingly effortless social interactions. I know a “typical” person is not sent into anxiety overdrive when she does not get a joke. Usually, people learn to ease into another topic or change directions in the conversation when they don’t understand something. A person with autism often gets embarrassed or bows out of the conversation altogether when she doesn’t understand something because it throws everything off track for her.
When my youngest daughter was 4, I went on a field trip with her to the zoo. As usual, we had to make a necessary stop at the gift shop. (My daughter has more stuffed animals than FAO Schwarz). She decided on a two foot tall giraffe for her purchase. I reluctantly bought the giraffe and we boarded the bus back to school. While sitting on the bus waiting to leave, my daughter’s teacher looked at me and said, “No zoo animals on the bus!.” She, and everyone in the immediate vicinity, started laughing. Of course, I had no idea why they were laughing. I suddenly felt horribly embarrassed. Were they laughing at me, someone else, or did I say something funny?
About ten minutes later, while we were well on our way back to school, I sheepishly asked another parent about the no zoo animals on the bus policy. She looked at me and said, “You’re holding a giraffe!.” After a few seconds I got it, but it was way too late to laugh. What seemed to be a stupid, easily understood joke, totally stumped me.
Recently my oldest daughter, 13, told me that she really doesn’t get jokes. I told her to just laugh when everyone else laughs, and try to figure it out later. I guess that’s the best advice for most social indiscretions…just laugh.
There will always be jokes, slang, and idioms beyond my comprehension at the moment, but I’m always learning (I also try not to carry around large stuffed giraffes!).
You know when I actually tell a joke, those who know me best, know how funny it really is to me. It takes a lot to learn the punch line.