One of the most common tropes about autism is that autistic people can’t understand sarcasm. Most stereotypes have some grain of truth in them, and this is no exception. Many of us have difficulty with figuring out sarcasm. In addition, we also tend to have difficulty with idioms and other sorts of figures of speech.
This started out very young for me. My mother recalls a story from when I was less than five years old, and I came home crying because a classmate of mine, Billy, had “shot a bird.” Of course, most of my readers will chuckle a bit at this because it’s glaringly obvious now that what my teachers really meant when they made this statement was that my classmate Billy shot up his middle finger at someone. As a five year old, I didn’t know this, and to be quite honest, it took me many, many years to figure out what was going on in this scenario. My parents assured me that no birds had died as a result of Billy’s actions, but it took me a long time to believe them.
My father is a very sarcastic person, but his tone of voice is difficult for me to understand, so sometimes I interpret something as sarcastic when it is not and vice versa. This has landed me in trouble more than once. He once said (in a tone I took as sincere) “thank you for doing this action” when he really meant “I don’t wish you any thanks because you did a pretty terrible thing”. I laughed inappropriately, and I certainly was punished then.
Much of my family can tell you one story or another about how I missed sarcasm or some sort of figure of speech. I still recall my aunt telling still-very-naive me at age 12 to “say no to boys”. I couldn’t figure out why I would want to say no, and what I’d need to say no to. I didn’t think boys were inherently dangerous (that’s another discussion for another, more serious blog post). It was a good ten years later that I figured out what she had meant in retrospect. I laugh about it now, but it was downright embarrassing to realize what a colossal mistake I had made in giggling at her words and then shutting up very quickly when she gave me a stern look and said “I’m serious.”
I tried to figure out these things on my own — what the person’s intent is, whether in context it makes sense to be serious or to be joking. It’s very difficult even now, and I must almost always use the phrase that adorns the title of this post. “Are you joking or serious?” Most of the time, people look at me funny, and then give me as honest an answer as they possibly can. I do appreciate this. I appreciate friends who will pull a John Watson on me and say “sarcasm” when someone is being sarcastic and it’s not immediately obvious by other people’s laughter.
The funniest part about this is that I myself am rather sarcastic. I say things in jest, and I try to convey a tone that screams “sarcasm”, and I don’t know if I do it well or if I’m total crap at it. I know that many times, I’ve had people look at me horrified until I explain that I’m joking, so I know that at least some of the time, I miss the mark there.
One thing I detest about this whole sarcasm thing is that it’s often used as a way to humiliate and belittle a person who doesn’t understand it. Browse “sarcasm” under Google images, and you’ll find images that relate to people being “idiots”, “morons” and “if I have to explain it, it’s not funny anymore!” This is incredibly hurtful and it makes it very difficult to have a conversation pretty much ever. Because I cannot always figure out when someone’s being sarcastic, it doesn’t matter if the conversation is online or offline. It just doesn’t matter because if I can’t read their tone, it makes the entire conversation difficult.
Recently, it seems that a lot of people think it’s funny to joke about how “oversensitive” people who don’t get sarcasm are. Because we’re taking “jokes” seriously, we are oversensitive and need to “lighten up”. The most recent example I can think of is an incident in which Martin Freeman, who plays Doctor John Watson in BBC Sherlock and Bilbo Baggins in the upcoming release of The Hobbit, refers to Lucy Liu (who plays Watson in CBS’ Elementary) as a “dog” and “ugly”. The interview apparently makes it clear that he’s trying to be funny and sarcastic. That doesn’t make the comment acceptable in any way, and many people who were bothered by the comment were able to figure out that he was trying to be funny. Even so, I need people to understand that it is not a moral failing to be unable to detect sarcasm. I need people to understand that we’re not trying to be oversensitive, that we’re not trying to spoil your fun. When we ask what the joke is, most of the time, we legitimately do not understand.
*Please note that not every autistic person has this problem. I should explain that there are many autistic people who can pick up on sarcasm, and that doesn’t make them any less autistic.