What's So Funny?

What's So Funny? (Turns out: A lot of things)

by Susan Goewey

We know about the Grief Bursts of autism--those sudden triggers of intense grief that hit us at IEP meetings, in doctors’ offices but also at moments that we expect to be joyful--birthdays, graduations, holidays. Such times can send even the best of us spiraling back into a place of sadness we thought we’d pulled ourselves out from.

But what about those opposite moments? Those bursts of laughter when we are so filled with joy we literally forget our troubles?

I wanted more of those.

Comic relief is essential in helping us cope with life’s many difficulties. Humor--when it works--is an emotionally satisfying way to turn life's conflicts into pleasures. But humor is different than laughter. We have different senses of humor: While we all laugh, we don’t all laugh at the same things.

In dealing with autism, a lack of shared humor with our kids can be one of the heartbreaks. Research confirms what most of us have observed: Children naturally laugh far more often than adults. But often our kids with autism do not find the same things funny we do, nor that their neurotypical peers do. My son laughs often, but rarely in a “typical” way. And I get annoyed when he giggles to himself unable to share why he’s laughing.
Recently, in my quest to laugh more with my son, I decided to attend a conference of the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor (AATH). “Laughter is the best medicine” has become a cliché, but I wanted to learn how to get more humor and shared laughter into our lives.  

In his book Ha! The Science of When We Laugh and Why (2014), neuroscientist Scott Weems explains how humor comes from inner conflict in our brains as we try to comprehend a complex world. "Getting” a punch-line is closely related to the joy we gain in eureka moments as we solve difficult problems. It takes time for tragedy to become acceptable comedic fodder, but when we find a way to laugh as we cope, the benefits to our immune system are dramatic.
Laughter Therapy is a real thing. Thanks to the 1998 film starring Robin Williams, dressed in scrubs and red clown nose, Dr. Patch Adams became the poster boy for humor therapy. He strongly believed that fun and laughter make life worth living and belong in healthcare every bit as much as medicines like Xanax and Prozac. “Humor is an antidote to all ills,” was his philosophy. “I find just walking around in colorful clothes, people smile more.”
I marvel how often in support groups we laugh far more than we cry as we chat about our challenges. I remember how we all cracked up at one mom’s response when asked if she’d completed a Special Needs Trust: “No, we’ve just decided that we can never die.”

When we laugh darkly like this, we are connecting as part of what humorists call an “in group.” And whatever the reason, it is comforting to be part of an in group: We have new friends who get it! However brief that laughter burst lasts, in that moment, we are enjoying ourselves. Laughter just feels good; hope for a better day springs forth. And yet, weren’t we just despairing? But, as Milton Berle put it, “Laughter is an instant vacation.” And who doesn’t need a vacation—no matter how brief-- from our troubles? It can be just one laugh away. This is why people so often laugh at funerals, we’re working to prove that a painful loss cannot destroy us.  In the words of Monty Python, “We’re not quite dead yet.” We laugh because we live and vice versa.
Happy childhoods require laughter. Humor research shows that laughter is highly dependent on spending time with others. Sure, we can laugh, alone, watching TV, or at messages on our iPhones—but that same experience is so much richer when shared with someone. Loneliness is no more! I found that shared laughter is one of the upsides of needing to hire so many therapists. Despite autism’s reputation for being “isolating” it might be that we autism parents laugh even more than families who don’t need “a village” to help engage their kids.

Laughter: the best reinforcer. ABA therapists, with their Mary Poppins-like bags of tricks and toys, were miracle workers for us. Hearing Luke laugh again—appropriately -- with them was such a relief. My confused, tantruming son was a happy kid again. I loved to hear him beg them, “Again! Again?!” for his favorite reinforcer…tickles!

On his datasheets, “Tickles” beat out the messy goop that stained my table cloth, the plastic hand clapper, the fake ice cream cone that shot its top across the room, and the jack in the box. The other A+ reinforcer was a musical device that played a snippet of “Who let the dogs out?! Who?! Who?!” That song made him laugh every time! He worked hard to earn those reinforcers, but their true magic to me was hearing his laughter.

Send in the clowns. Many adults say they don’t like circus clowns—I was one of those people. Every year we were offered free tickets to the Circus and that meant…clowns. But without the need for language processing, I realized my son “got” the clowns’ mimed jokes!  His joy was my joy. Like watching a tennis match, my eye moved from clown antics to my son’s face as I scrutinized what made him laugh.

Live Shows: “Learn new things, do new things” has been our family’s mantra ever since my son’s second grade teacher preached it to him daily. For ten years, Luke has repeated those words at home; we find it funny how he self-talks it when he clearly does not want to do something new. But aren’t we all like that when faced with something scary?  “Learn new things, do new things” is now my own philosophy to force us out in the world, to take social risks, to keep learning, to step out of our ruts.
Thus, I take my son to as many live shows as possible. And I’m rewarded for my efforts. After Luke laughed at a magician who stole a little boy’s shoe, we employed the same strategy in therapy. He gleefully earned his hidden shoe back, with a game of “hot and cold” to help him find it.
Our more successful outings are staged stories from favorite movies (Wizard of Oz, Mary Poppins and Lion King). But musicals like Legally Blonde and The Music Man with over his head jokes succeed too as he still enjoys the singing and dancing and smiles when the audience laughs. I admit: Seeing the wide gap between him and his musically talented neurotypical peers can make me sad, but I remind myself “comparison is the thief of joy.” Most of us are destined to be in the audiences rather than stars—but applauding talent is fun too. Our sad emotions can coexist with joyful ones.
This is Your Brain on Music: Daniel Levitin’s book This is Your Brain on Music, details the many benefits of music and how our emotional response to hearing music can boost the release of dopamine. AATH featured a terrific comedic opera singer, Kate Offer, who transformed herself dramatically and hilariously with each song-like a one-woman Broadway-esq show. I was exhausted going into her session, but became so energized laughing at her performance. I introduced myself and sat next to her the rest of the conference.  Her day job is as a kindergarten music teacher who keeps her students giggling and vice versa.  She said the AATH conference performance helped her hone her adult material too. (I’m smiling as I type this recalling her animated portrayal of the sexual awakening of Marion the Librarian.)

Pairing teaching with music for toddlers is standard in preschool. Sadly, by middle school, music is phased out unless children study band instruments or sing in the chorus (which my son can’t do). After the AATH conference, I enrolled my son in music therapy. He loved it and noticeably started listening better. At an eligibility meeting 6 months later the teachers asked, “What have you been doing with Luke at home? He is like a new boy; he listens better, he has more self-control and just seems happier.” While music therapy is not intentionally funny, we find it so. I love watching him laugh as he proudly goes through call and response drumming, piano, and singing to the guitar. It reminds me Professor Harold Hill conducting the children to play for the first time in The Music Man. They honk out the off-key--barely recognizable—tune to the delight of their proud parents. I am those parents! My son’s off-key voice is beautiful to me: He’s singing-in complete sentences.

Life Lessons from Improv: Serenity Now! I was torn over which competing AATH sessions to attend-- they all sounded helpful. A session on the healing power of meditation (mantra: “It is what it is and it will be OK.”) cracked us up when the soothing voice calmly started to curse life’s suckish difficulties. (Google “Ef that meditation” on YouTube for a great laugh.) But even as we giggled, we heard screams of laughter from the Improv session next door that I was sorry to miss. I had read in Tina Fey’s memoir Bossy-Pants on the benefits of applying improv principles to help meet life challenges (see sidebar).

Could your family use more screen time?  Too much screen time is a common lament, but it has its comedic benefits.

  • TV. My daughter’s needs often took a back seat to her brother’s; she’d beg me to join her “for just one episode” as she binge-watched her favorite funny shows: Big Bang Theory, Everybody Hates Chris, The Office, New Girl, and How I Met Your Mother. Being busy with “more important” things, I resisted. AATH made me see her requests in a different light. Frequent, shared laughter was essential for her too to cope. I made a point of folding laundry in front of the tv with her, asking her to share characters’ stories and WHY their jokes were so hilarious to her.
  • Movies: Several AATH speakers recommended the movie Inside Out. I agree it is a must-see for anyone who has ever struggled with depression--situational or chronic. The movie illustrates what goes on emotionally in our brains in moments of trauma and fear. Based on the true story of the scriptwriter’s daughter after a move from Minnesota to California for his new job, the family falls apart but eventually pulls itself back together with the help of intense emotions personified as characters in Reilly’s head: Anger, Fear, Disgust, Sadness, and Joy. Finding small joys again is essential so our pain does not paint our entire world gray –including even our happy long-term memories. Inside Out shows how others’ efforts to cheer us up can backfire (and even disgust us) making things worse. We simply need time to feel our sadness and pain before we can experience joy again. (As a AATH speaker noted: Comedy = Tragedy + Time.) As Reilly discovers, we need all our emotions to survive. How many times have parents been recommended the Serenity Prayer? But Inside Out offers a comforting allegory as to just how hard that is for parents to find “the serenity to accept the things we cannot change; the courage to change the things we can; and the wisdom to know the difference.” Humor can help get us on the road back to joy, but timing is critical.
  • YouTube. Some sources of laughter, like YouTube, are more readily available than others. Fellow moms tell me they use funny videos as reinforcers and as a source to cheer themselves up too. Personally, I have lost track of how many times I’ve watched the “KT Wedding Entrance Dance Video,” “11-Month-Old-Twins-Dancing-to-Daddys-Guitar” eating their peas in matching high chairs, rocking out while mom laughs and films. I drag Luke to the screen to see if he can share the humor.  With my daughter, I love sharing Jimmy Fallon’s Thank You notes clips   and making up our own.  (For her high school graduation, I shared these: “Thank you, high school yearbook, for showing me all the ways I didn’t get involved.” And “Thank you, graduation gown, for basically saying, ‘This is one of the most important days of your life, so dress in your finest clothing then throw this over it … and wear this square hat too!”)  Recently, my son spontaneously laughed appropriately (!) thanks to YouTube. We were working on an inference worksheet. The fill in the blank was: “The girl laughs at the: (blank)” By process of elimination, he chose the correct multiple choice answer, but I could tell he didn’t really understand. So, we pulled up a YouTube video of “dog-chasing-its-tail” and…he laughed! Then he got up from the table and started imitating the dog--turning himself around in circles chasing an imaginary tail. Suddenly he, his tutor and I were laughing together;  my heart filled with joy and hope.
  • “Favorite Moment of the Day” journal. You don’t have to go to a humor therapy conference to know it helps to mindfully document the humorous moments of your life. I keep a running list entitled “Cute things Luke says” and his age when he said it. In first grade he learned about consonants but, strangely, called them “B,C,Ds”; he would recite the entire alphabet, carefully leaving out all the vowels. The first time he saw sleet he exclaimed. “It’s rainsnow!” A spectacular sunset evoked, “I see pink sky!” He remembers events in his past based on his grade in school at the time; I find it funny that he refers to his preschool days as “Back when I was in zero grade …”

The AATH conference confirmed physician philosopher William James’ observation: “We don’t laugh because we’re happy, we’re happy because we laugh.”


When Luke was young—like Leonardo DiCaprio in Gilbert Grape--he climbed to the highest point of everything. One Thanksgiving weekend I briefly lost him in the National Sculpture Garden. Then I heard, “CHEESE!” and looked up to see he had not only ignored the “Do Not Touch” signs, but had climbed to the tip top of a piece of art that looks a lot like his Don’t Break the Ice game. There he stood, posing for a picture. “Luke! Get down!” I ordered, but instinctively I aimed my camera and snapped.

“I know what Luke’s going to be when he grows up,” my daughter said.

“What?” I asked

“A mountain climber.”


 In her book Bossy Pants, Tina Fey explains how the Rules of Improv also offer guidelines for life:     

  • Say, “Yes, and…
  • Give and take
  • Be in the moment

Educator and humorist Susan Curtis has found that following the rules of Improv leads to better:

  • Communication (Listening and speaking with confidence)
  • Trust (in oneself and in others)
  • Rapport and connection
  • Creativity and open-mindedness

Founder of AATH’s Humor Academy,  Mary Kay Morrison offers her “Top 10” reasons that humor and laughter are FUNdamental to learning.

  • Plants memories
  • Grows coping skills
  • Cultivates energy and engagement
  • Captures and retains attention
  • Neutralizes stress
  • Is the #1 Characteristic students value in a teacher
  • Enhances creativity
  • Facilitates communication
  • Supports the change process
  • Is Free and Fun!

This article first appeared in Autism Asperger's Digest Magazine, January 2018 and is reprinted with permission. Susan Goewey is a writer and the mother of a teenage son with autism. She blogs at https://susangblog.wordpress.com

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Comments on "What's So Funny?"

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Amy Standridge - Friday, May 07, 2021

Thanks, Susan! I just got done with the 2021 AATH conference last week. I'm also a music therapist! I love this article - thank you.

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