At the time of writing, a Google search for “COVID-19 funny” returned some 880,000,000 results. Similarly, at this time the novel Coronavirus SARS-2 has affected all but 12 countries around the world, and despite testing limitations some 4,256,579 positive cases have been reported worldwide (COVID-19 Worldometer). With no vaccine, no clinically proven anti-viral treatments currently available, and a reported global death toll of 287,354, many people may wonder why COVID-19-related humor has been so prevalent during this pandemic. The role and use of humor at this time could be even more confusing for people on the autism spectrum.
Currently a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is made based upon the presence of persistent impairment in reciprocal social communication and interaction and also restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, both present from early childhood (DSM-5, 2013). We live in an era where social communication and interaction may take various forms other than direct speech. Typical daily interactions in our schools and workplaces, or amongst our family and friends, may include a multitude of in-person or virtual exchanges of texts, pictures, or videos. Appropriately developed social skills are integral to achieving these social communication and interaction tasks successfully.
Orpinas and Horne (2006) defined social competence as “a person’s age‐appropriate knowledge and skills for functioning peacefully and creatively in his or her own community or social environment” (p. 108). Research has posited that the judicious use of humor may be an important social skill in itself and may contribute to other social competencies, such as the ability to initiate social interactions, provide emotional support, and manage conflict (Yip and Martin, 2006). It has been reported that humor may function as a mechanism for coping with stress (Lefcourt, 2001). Humor may also be viewed as an important emotion regulation mechanism. Prior research has noted the relationship between humor and a positive mood (Martin et al., 2003), and in maintaining a cheerful perspective in the face of adversity (Lefcourt, 2001; Martin, et al., 1993).
During the COVID-19 pandemic, humor has been widely used by people in all walks of life, including city Mayors, national television entertainers, comedians, and internet content creators. Humorous content has been widely shared on social media platforms by children and adults alike, posing a confusing message as to how joking and laughter share a place with grieving and solemnity during this unprecedented period. Social skill deficits and developmental delays that are prevalent amongst many people on the autism spectrum further contribute to questions about why is this meme or video funny, or why we should laugh at the moment? Such questions are completely valid, and it is of utmost importance to provide appropriate explanations and guidance surrounding the use of humor.
COVID-19-themed humor has been used in various ways, including to send important messages to promote behavioral change for government mandated initiatives such as social distancing, increased frequency of hand washing, the necessity of temperature screening and contact tracing when entering public venues, and in many locations the compulsory wearing of face masks. Humor may serve as a useful delivery mode to clearly convey important messages to a wide audience, while reducing the stress associated with sudden behavioral changes. Humor may also promote solidarity and a sense of inclusion, relieve aggression, and alleviate boredom that may be particularly challenging for people with ASD as a result of unanticipated changes to daily living routines.
Many styles of humor exist, and what is funny to one person may not be funny to another. Consequently, some people on the autism spectrum who experience challenges attributed to an undeveloped sense of humor, or the inappropriate use of humor, may be placed at a distinct disadvantage in their social interactions. Yip and Martin (2006) reported that two humor styles – affiliative, and self-enhancing – are thought to be potentially beneficial to relationships and emotional well-being. Further, two humor styles – aggressive, and self-defeating – are believed to be potentially detrimental to relationships and well-being. Importantly, Martin et al (2003) highlighted that the absence of maladaptive humor styles may be equally as important as the presence of positive humor styles.
Social skills training can help develop social competence and is an important aspect of treatment for many people with ASD. Miller, Vernon, Wu and Russo (2014) conducted an extensive review of social skills group training and reported that research evidence for social skills development in youth with ASD has largely targeted social competence. Additional components such as social cognition, theory of mind skills, conversational skills, emotional expressiveness, social and emotional perspective taking, understanding non-verbal communication, self-determination, and symptoms of anxiety have also been included in social skills interventions (Miller et al., 2014). Further, they reported that the majority of social skills programs took place weekly for 10 – 16 weeks and were based upon group discussion and/or rehearsal opportunities and role-plays (Miller et al., 2014). Their research suggested that several months of weekly group intervention may be the minimum amount of time necessary to reliably improve participants’ social skills.
While facets of humor are reflected in these skill sets, humor is currently an under-researched area in social skills development for people with ASD. Nonetheless, it is possible to incorporate explicit teaching of humor styles, social cognition, theory of mind, emotional expressiveness, and social and emotional perspective taking using a variety of comedic materials as the topic of group discussion and role play in social skills training.
Ideally, people may gain experience in social skills training in a group setting as part of their overall support program. While this is not always possible because of geographic isolation or funding complications, families, peers, teachers and other instructors in community settings may also use discussion and role-play to help develop an understanding of humor and the requisite social skills to use humor to promote social interactions, manage mood, and alleviate stress. As with many other types of social interaction, knowing when to end a humorous exchange is also an important skill. Teaching an individual with ASD to read their communicative partner’s queues that signal loss of interest in a conversational topic, or the absence of laughter when sharing humorous exchanges, can provide the scaffolding necessary for people with ASD to successfully use humor in a positive and socially acceptable manner.
In summary, while there is certainly nothing funny about the COVID-19 pandemic, there are constructive uses of humor when navigating the associated challenges as the pandemic continues to unfold.
Dr. Monica E. Carr is a Research Fellow at The University of Melbourne, Australia, and Member of the Board of Directors, Genesis School for Special Education, Singapore. For more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA.
Lefcourt, H. M. (2001). Humor: The psychology of living buoyantly. New York: Kluwer Academic
Martin, R. A., Kuiper, N. A., Olinger, L. J., & Dance, K. A. (1993). Humor, coping with stress, self-concept, and psychological well-being. Humor: International Journal of Humor Research, 6, 89–104.
Martin, R. A., Puhlik-Doris, P., Larsen, G., Gray, J., & Weir, K. (2003). Individual diVerences in uses of humor and their relation to psychological well-being: Development of the humor styles questionnaire. Journal of Research in Personality, 37, 48–75
Miller, A., Vernon, T., Wu, V., & Russo, K. (2014). Social Skill Group Interventions for Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorders: a Systematic Review, Review Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders (1) 254–265, Doi:10.1007/s40489-014-0017-6
Orpinas, P., & Horne, A. M. (2006). Bullying prevention: Creating a positive school climate and developing social competence. American Psychological Association. https://doi.org/10.1037/11330-000
Yip, J. A., & Martin, R. A. (2006). Sense of humor, emotional intelligence, and social competence. Journal of Research in Personality (40) 1202–1208. Doi:10.1016/j.jrp.2005.08.005