We recently stumbled across a new show on HBO called On Tour with Aspergers Are Us, which is about a group of young men who have Autism Spectrum Disorder who came together to form a traveling comedy troupe. Now, humor and ASD is not a combination that most people would think of - including me.
They are, in point of fact, hilarious.
The show is done in a documentary style, following the members of the groups as they embark on their journey together. A caveat: Are they all young white men with similar backgrounds? Yes. Does this result in a lack of diversity and representation in the show? Yes. Does this make the show any less worth watching? No. =) Just know what you're getting into before you turn it on.
At one point, they are in a recording studio together sitting for a radio interview, and the camera angle shows one of the young men fidgeting with the tag on his open flannel shirt behind his back. My husband tapped my arm when he saw this, recognizing right away the same self-soothing technique our son uses when faced with unpredictable situations. How validating to see that very mechanism right there on an HBO show!
ASD and Humor
Because of the various ways my ASD affects me, I am often the last person in a room to:
Realize that a joke has been made,
Understand why the joke was funny, and
React appropriately to the joke.
Humor often misses me for several specific reasons:
Nonverbal Cues: It is difficult for me to read body language and tone of voice, so I will miss cues in a person's demeanor or intonation that indicate they are joking - raised eyebrows, sarcastic tone, side-smile, etc. Hugely obvious signs, like a wink or an elbow nudge, are easier for me to spot.
Literal v. Figurative: I default to literal interpretation of what people say, and it takes a conscious effort for me to stop my train of thought, back the train up, switch the train tracks from "literal" to "figurative" and start the train going again along a non-literal track once I realize my mistake. Often I have to replay the joke in my head with this new interpretation turned on, including all the surrounding context that may or may not validate the joke, before I can realize why it was funny.
Flexibility: My brain also tends toward highly rigid, inflexible thinking. So a joke that requires some mental acrobatics - like thinking of a known concept in a new or unexpected way (part of what makes some jokes entertaining for many people) - requires two or three times as many acrobatics on my part, and simply takes longer to hit the mark.
Contextual Awareness: Many jokes rely on a larger implied context in order to be funny: a cultural awareness, a prior "inside" knowledge of a person or a place, a mutual understanding of the underlying factors which make a joke funny. I am not naturally aware of this larger context, and it takes conscious thought for me to broaden my perspective and filter all the possible larger contexts that could be at play.
Usually, unless the joke makes use of a cultural reference of which I am entirely unfamiliar (which happens often enough as people think I am older than I really am), I can work out the point of a joke and respond appropriately in what is considered an acceptable, if longer-than-normal, time frame.
But sometimes, by the time I get to the reaction stage, it is already far too late for me to laugh and still be within the "normal" realm of an appropriate response. So instead of laughing way too late, I let the joke pass without much reaction from me, which usually gives the impression that I am either too preoccupied with other things and not really paying attention (aloof), or just a serious person who is not that quick to laugh (solemn). Both of these false impressions, while inaccurate and certainly not ideal, are better than the inevitable impression of "socially inept" that follows too many too-late reactions.
Sometimes, if I am in a room full of people and they all start laughing, I can be quick enough to join in and fake-laugh with them, while I try to work out what they all think is funny. In these situations, I'm usually careful not to be too enthusiastic, in case what they all think is funny is something that I end up not thinking is funny at all. Instead, I give the impression that I'm polite-laughing, rather than really laughing, which, in fact, is the truth. People can use humor for both good and evil - and the last thing I want to do is imply endorsement of a cruel usage.
Now, above is a bunch of reasons why humor can be difficult for me. But I can also use my brain quirks to my advantage when it comes to humor.
I am far from a funny person, but every once in a while I can land a joke that lights up an entire room, using a type of "slow burn" humor that is actually quite rare. Because of my slower-than-normal intake and interpretation of something that others think is funny, I have a lot more time to mull it over, dissect it, understand the inner workings of it, and turn it to my advantage. If someone says something that a room thinks is mildly funny, then half an hour or so later, I can refer back to it with a quick, relevant quip that brings people back to that moment of fun, which nobody is expecting. Most of the room will have forgotten their earlier reason for laughing and will light up at the chance to hearken back to it, and the original level of funniness will have heightened ten-fold simply from the passage of time. People love quick references back to earlier context - it makes us feel smart and connected.
My tendency for literal thinking also lends itself to a particular type of humor that makes use of plays-on-words, puns, and specifically interacts with the brain's tendency for literal interpretation - a tendency we all have, even if some of us find it harder to circumvent than others.
Aspergers Are Us
With all of this in mind, it can be hard to imagine how a group of four people who might have similar challenges when it comes to humor could come together and think, hey, let's travel the world performing comedy. But lord, are they funny.
The fact that my husband, who is "neurotypical," was laughing right along side me as we watched, indicates that their humor appeals to a wide audience. I didn't find them funny just because I also happen to have ASD. Though I did find their humor much easier to follow and therefore more enjoyable than most comedy I have seen. Like they say on their website - expect dry, deadpan, silly humor like that of Monty Python, and you'll get more than you came for. =)