Humor on the Autism Continuum
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is defined in part as a deficit in social communication and interaction. Humor can be key to developing and maintaining social relationships, referred to as a ‘social lubricant’ or a ‘social glue’. Asperger drew attention to a ‘humorlessness’ in ASD, although also noting competence in wordplays. Subsequent research has suggested a preference in people with ASD for humor such as wordplay or slapstick, which do not necessitate taking the perspective of others. Additionally, recent theories of humour have proposed different styles of humour, namely socially-adaptive positive humour styles and socially-maladaptive negative humour styles.
To identify if those with higher levels of autistic traits from a general population and those with a diagnosis of ASD demonstrate a deficit in the appreciation of positive humour specifically (contrasted with negative humor). To explore differences in the preferences for different types of humor in ASD.
Three studies were conducted. 1) Autistic traits were assessed in a general population (n=163) and contrasted with positive and negative: a) humor styles, b) humor experiences, and c) humor preferences. 2) A group diagnosed with ASD (n=16) were compared with a Typically Developing (TD, n=16) group to explore differences in positive and negative: a) humor experiences, and b) humor preferences. 3) A group diagnosed with ASD (n=26) were compared with a Typically Developing (TD, n=75) group to explore differences in a) humor preferences, and b) the perceived humor of five comedic principles (Concept-based; Character-based; Slapstick; Exaggeration & Escalation; Wordplay).
Participants completed the Autism Quotient and the Humor Styles Questionnaire (Study 1), the Humour Experiences Questionnaire and rated comedy clips for perceived humor (all studies).
In Study 1, higher AQ scores significantly and negatively correlated with positive humour style and positive humor experiences (controlling for gender). There were no correlations between AQ and negative humor style and negative humor experience. There was a trend for higher AQ to correlate with finding both positive and negative humor less funny.
In Study 2, there were no significant group differences in positive or negative humor experiences. The ASD group reported that the positive humor was significantly less funny than the control group. There were no group differences in the perceived funniness of negative humor.
In Study 3, the ASD group reported significantly less positive humour experiences than the control group with no differences in negative humor experiences (no gender differences). The ASD group reported that the clips demonstrating 1) Wordplay and 2) Character-based comedic principles were less funny than the control group, with no differences in the ratings of the other comedic principles.
Taken together, the results suggest a diminished preference for, and experience with, positive humor associated with higher levels of autistic traits (including those with a diagnosis of ASD) which does not extend to negative humor. This is pertinent as positive humor if argued to be socially adaptive and facilitate social relationships. There is also evidence that humor is often rated as less funny by those with high autism traits and ASD.