Thursday, July 10, 2008

Are You Serious?

This was a pretty tough crowd. No one laughed at my introduction slide, which was marked clearly — Introduction: This is a social convention— or my earnest explanation of how and why one should say hello to a new acquaintance. Well, it was four in the afternoon, the last of a day full of sessions. The room was packed and it was hot in there. There had been a delay setting up the equipment, so everyone attending my session had to watch as the projector was set up, microphone adjusted, internet connection checked. So I didn’t worry too much at first.

When, by the third or fourth piece of silliness, hardly anyone had cracked a smile, I had an idea. Could it be happening…again? I asked them. “Did anyone think it was funny, when I talked about introductions…or did you think I was serious?”

Yep. That was it. They thought I’d meant to explain to them the importance of saying hello. Now we could all relax a bit, and have a laugh at our misunderstandings, at this unintentional exercise in understanding the Theory of Mind concept. You see, I thought I’d understood well enough. Here was a group of pretty sophisticated professionals, mostly OVR and Supported Employment specialists who were not going to be fooled into thinking that a diagnosis of AS would necessarily mean 1) no sense of humor and 2) poor understanding of basic social niceties. But they weren’t sure. They were keeping quiet until they were better able to assess the situation. Laughing at someone’s differences, at someone’s expense, was not their intention.

In short, I’d assumed a shared point of reference, and it wasn’t there. Probably, this is the thing most responsible for the question I hear more than any other in everyday conversations: Are you serious?

Yes, much of my humor depends on the viewer or listener having experienced the same input I have, and having interpreted it in a similar way. That shared history, whether through popular culture or classic literature, plays an important part in any humor. For the autistic person, one who tends to take a strong interest in a few topics rather than a general interest in many topics, the opportunities to share humor can be somewhat reduced. There is a fairly narrow audience for jokes about the Amish Anomaly or the Sally-Anne test. (Brick walls don't get many laughs, either.)

So that was problem one, the assumption that my audience would be familiar enough with autism stereotypes as stereotypes to know when they were being tweaked in a funny direction. Of course non-verbal communications (body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, etc.) can serve as cues that something is intended as a joke. I can use this to good effect sometimes. Think of the humor of Steven Wright, all the more funny because he appears not to know he is funny. But sometimes, a flat affect is just a flat affect. Sometimes it confuses people who are used to a little more inflection or finesse.

Yesterday, I was not having a great speech day. I felt like I was trying to lasso words while riding a horse that kept rearing up or breaking into a gallop. I didn’t have anything left in me for finesse. Better to stick to the script, hope for the best. I walked through the rest of the slides, alternating the absurd with the serious, often combining the two in semi-haphazard fashion, as I’m inclined to. The Detective magazine stories worked well in encouraging group discussion. By the time I got to those, a number of myths had been questioned, and everyone seemed more relaxed and less afraid of saying the wrong thing or giggling at the wrong time.

Afterward, I had one less standard question to answer. I got it last time, and the time before, but here, it had already been covered. I can usually tell when this one is coming. It’s practically the opposite of the one that comes up in conversations. Someone steps forward nervously. I’m not sure if I should…or…I mean how to say it…but…do you…do you know? Do you know you are funny?
Well, yeah, sometimes.


  1. Oh that question is priceless!

  2. The answer is yes... funny - "ha ha".* :-D

    I hope you get to do many more presentations. I bet people are left with a strong impression of new lessons learned.

    * As opposed to "funny - odd". Well maybe a little of both.

  3. Too right you're funny! I'd love to attend one of your presentations, but will contend with reading the blog.

  4. You made me giggle! (and giggle-snort a bit too, because I'm reading alone and can make whatever noises I want.)

    I once gave a presentation to a group of um, let's call them Obedient Little Church Mommies, all sitting there on the folding chairs with "quiet hands" in their laps, dressed up in things like denim dresses with cutesy embroidered appliques on them. Not a person laughed at the jokes that had received laughter everywhere else. They had no questions.

    It was bloody eerie, like I had stepped into some sort of church-preschool Stepford Wives story. Not only that, my ADHD felt comparatively Hyperactive just because I wasn't standing immobilised while speaking.

    Ever since then, if I get a few minutes into a presentation and the audience is being too politely passive, I tell them that it is their JOB to ask questions and participate, and that if they think something is funny to go ahead and laugh because it is probably MEANT to be funny!

    andrea, lghrk-ing with appreciation for your wonderfully dry humor

    (lghrk is the word verification)


  6. Also:

  7. Also! Is that an authentic photo of *the* Squawkers McCaw, or one of those publicity photos featuring one of his relatives?

  8. Ms. Clark,
    Wre you serious?

    Please address your questions directly to Mr. McCaw.

    lghrk has been added to my permanent vocabulary. I don't know how to pronounce it. Just as well.

  9. I just wanted to say thanks...I was one of the many of the folks who "didn't know when to laugh" last week at the presentation. The things I learned in your session have already changed the way I do my job and work with each of my clients. Thanks for sharing with us!

  10. For me it's usually the other way around: People laugh when I ask: "REALLY?" xD


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