Humour is a complex language. It is a multifaceted phenomenon which is an important indicator of the interpersonal, socio-cognitive and cultural skills of an individual. Whilst these skills are largely intact within most individuals, they can be affected and impeded in varying ways and extents by autism.

‘Autistic Spectrum Disorder’ is frequently used to refer to the group of disorders that is characterised by abnormalities and difficulties in reciprocal social interactions and in patterns of communication. It can therefore be described as a ‘hidden disability’, one which is not necessarily ‘visually’ apparent. The family of disorders includes Asperger’s Syndrome, and the National Autistic Society estimates that ASD in all its forms affects 1.1% of the population. It is only a decade ago that autism began to be recognised as a spectrum condition, a developmental disability that manifests itself at varying levels.

Making sense of the world

Autism changes the way that people make sense of the world. The implications of the condition can involve an inability to appreciate ‘the big picture’ and so, a tendency instead to focus on small details. A metaphor to describe this way of thinking used by Simon Baron-Cohen, a leading Professor in the field of autism research, is the panning and zooming action of the cameras used in films. The ability to use both can give us a good understanding of the big picture along with finer details within it. Those with autism may lack the ability to ‘pan out’ on a scene the way others might, meaning that they fixate on detail.

Those with ASD can have difficulties reading facial expressions, body language and the intended meaning of metaphors and expressions. For example, the use of phrases such as ‘break a leg!’ might confuse autistic individuals, as they will take phrases very literally. Essentially, reading non-verbal cues and inexplicit forms of interaction can be difficult for those with autism. A difficulty which stems from this is an inability for themselves to use non-verbal communication such as gestures, eye contact and facial expression, which are core features of reciprocal social interaction.

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