The Kraft Group's Clinical Director Stephanie Zeman was interviewed as a subject expert for everyday health magazine:
My son occasionally does stand-up, and has brought down the house.
For someone on the autism spectrum, reading social cues can be difficult. Being met with a blank stare — especially after telling what you think is a very funny joke — can trigger anxiety. Outsiders often interpret anxiety and the awkwardness that accompanies it with lacking a sense of humor. But it’s not true. I’ve seen my son, Jordon, make a room full of strangers laugh.
He’s 17 years old and has autism. Jordon’s on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum and recently got interested in comedy. He enrolled in a stand-up comedy workshop a year-and-a-half-ago and has since taken the class two more times. He’s always loved word play and has filled up notebooks with pages of one-liners. One of his teacher’s favorites is “What do you call a house on a diet? A light house.”
It got a few laughs when he performed at the local comedy club. At the end of each semester, the class he takes at the adult school in our town performs at Scotty’s Comedy Cove in Springfield, New Jersey. The first time he got up in front of a packed house, he froze; I did too. His teacher jumped up and chanted his name. The audience followed and he went into his set. His jokes were tame and the audience’s reaction was positive.
At his second performance, he scrapped the one-liners and talked about being autistic. He opened by introducing himself and saying, “I have autism. I also have OCD, ODD, ADHD, and ADD, and I’m the most normal comic you’re going to see on stage tonight.”
Humor Doesn’t Always Come Naturally — But It Can Be Learned
Autism is pervasive. A government study finds 1 out of every 45 children ages 3 through 17 in the United States have been diagnosed with some form of autism spectrum disorder. Everyone at Autism Speaks will tell you, “If you meet one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” It’s a spectrum and it ranges from low- to high-functioning individuals.
A special report from Autism Speaks, an advocacy nonprofit, finds while it’s common for children with autism to be slow in grasping irony or predicting surprise endings, research suggests that by adolescence, many on the milder end of the autism spectrum understand, enjoy, and use humor — though they may process jokes differently.
“Understanding sarcasm is difficult because the social cues are disrupted,” Stephanie Zeman, master of social work and clinical director of The Kraft Group, says. “You tell a joke and expect a laugh. Not getting one is difficult to understand. When we’re young we’re taught laughter and smiling are positive and frowning and crying are negative. When someone on the spectrum sees a frown or is met with a blank stare after telling what they think is a funny joke, they can become anxious. We think, if I make this person laugh, he’ll like me — and we want people to like us.”
“It’s like if I told you something, and you responded with a blank stare; I can’t tell what you’re feeling. Some people on the autism spectrum can’t read body language and will shut down if they don’t get the reaction they’re anticipating.”
Valerie Paradiz, PhD, national board member of Autism Speaks and director of a consultancy firm that supports individuals with autism and other disabilities, agrees. Her son, Elijah, age 27, was diagnosed with Asperger’s several years ago and he occasionally performs as a stand-up comic. He’s appeared at Gotham Comedy Club, on MTV’s True Life, and at the Las Vegas Comedy Festival. He started performing at age 13 and performs in local comedy clubs in upstate New York where he lives.
“He has a deep interest in comedy,” Dr. Paradiz says. “That’s a positive trait of autism, developing a deep interest in something. Together we watched Charlie Chaplin, Abbott and Costello, and Laurel and Hardy over and over. He memorized some of their jokes and skits. He purchased books on comedy and watched other comedians online.”
My son, Jordon, like Elijah, found laughter to be a powerful reward. “Like with anything you develop a strong interest in, you study and master it,” Paradiz says. “It becomes something you’re comfortable with. Many people with autism need structure to feel calm and not out of control.”
Comedy: An Unlikely but Potent Therapy
In Jordon’s case, he found applause and laughter boost confidence. “Take our show last winter,” Lee Navlen, comedian and comedy teacher, says. “He had the audience in stitches that evening with funny yet poignant stories about his autism. He laid it out there and the audience loved it.”
When he spoke, the audience listened carefully. Jordon didn’t talk until he was almost 5. Stand-up has helped him with his diction, eye contact, and self-assuredness. “Getting up on stage made me feel courageous,” he says.
Talking about being autistic also made him feel proud. Without being mean, he laughs at himself. “I tell the audience, having autism isn’t a tragedy. And then I ask them, ‘Want to know what a real tragedy is? Running out of bacon. That’s a real tragedy.’ It always gets a big laugh,” he says.
He also enjoys making fun of his OCD. “I tell them, if I had a nickel for every time someone said I’m OCD, I’d have 299 dollars and 55 cents,” he jokes.
Some people don’t think anyone — even those on the spectrum — should joke about being autistic. But we’ve found that it actually starts conversations. After his comedy shows, Jordon and I are approached by others with well-meaning questions.
“Your son is using his autism as a strength,” Zeman says. “He’s identifying deficits and using them as opportunities to overcome any perceived weaknesses.”