Saturday, September 15, 2007

Severe Asperger's? Quick Note About Humor, Einstein and Stereotypes

There are some good arguments against the claim that Albert Einstein was likely autistic. The most compelling one, perhaps, is that it's difficult or impossible to diagnose the dead retrospectively.

There are also pretty good arguments against overpromoting autistic traits in famous people. For example, it has been suggested that positive stereotypes are as bad as negative ones.

The rest of the arguments are not that good and are themselves based on stereotypes, e.g. autistics don't marry, autistics can't ever be successful, etc.

Then there's this odd one (or is it funny?) that I came across:

Einstein was regarded as having a good sense of humour - a trait not seen in people with severe Asperger's.
It appears that this argument has caught on, as it has been paraphrased all over the internet (e.g. here, here and here).

First off, is this "Severe Asperger's" an official classification? How is it defined? Isn't that what one normally calls, you know, "autism"?

Is the author of the argument saying that Albert Einstein had "mild" Asperger's instead? It could be interpreted that way I guess.

Now, is the claim true at all? What is the evidence? I did some research.

There appears to be limited evidence that autistics don't perform as well as non-autistics in tasks related to understanding humor. For example, Emerich et al. (2003) found that HFA adolescents had significantly poorer performance than controls in comprehension of cartoons and jokes.

There's always a possibility that these sorts of results can be explained as part of a language comprehension impairment. In fact, let me make a suggestion to autism researchers: If you ever find that autistics don't perform as well as non-autistics in some test, be it a Sally-Ann (ToM) test or a Weschler intelligence test, consider the possibility that it is due to a language comprehension impairment. But I digress.

Is there any evidence that autistics cannot produce humor? Very little as far as I can tell. There's only one PubMed-indexed study that I could find that might remotely support that conclusion. St James & Tager-Flusberg (1994) is a study involving 6 autistic children and 6 language-matched Down syndrome controls. They found that the only jokes in the study were told by 2 of the children with Down's.

That's not much to go on. Now let's see if there's evidence in the opposite direction.

Van Bourgondien & Mesibov (1987) examined humor used in a group of autistic adults. The study demonstrated that autistics "enjoy a wide range of jokes and that humor seems to enrich their lives."

Werth et al. (2001) is a case report of Grace, an HFA woman who the authors believe is "unusual" because she produces a good deal of humorous and creative word play. (Researchers are not immune to stereotypes, obviously).

Lyons & Fitzgerald (2004) also challenges assumptions about lack of humor in autism.

At the risk of naming more famous people as examples, consider that comedian Dan Aykroyd has stated he has Asperger's (source). Other comedians suspected of being Asperger autistics include Andy Kaufman and Woody Allen. That doesn't seem far-fetched to me.


While there is not a lot of research on the matter, the claim that humor is not seen in people with "Severe Asperger's" is clearly unsubstantiated.


  1. Well, here's at least one more case study.

    Me = Severe Asperger's (i.e., strong autistic features but lack of language delay or developmental delay)

    Me = also capable of making jokes. People define my sense of humor as "quirky".

  2. I grew up with Aspergian family members who were outrageously funny! They can come across as either boring or pedantic in face to face conversation, but in their novels or emails they can be a riot.

  3. Someone with Asperger's might not understand the jokes of someone who is NT, but who did Einstein hang out and interact with? Other physicists. Other people on the spectrum.

  4. There's also a difference between understanding a particular joke and having a sense of humor.

    Are Deaf people considered humorless if they can't read lips to understand Hearing people joking?

  5. Amanda: You're correct. In fact, most of the existing research has to do with understanding humor narratives, "getting" the joke, and such. They've probably generalized from that and erroneously assumed 'lack of sense of humor'.

    daedalus2u: I'm actually not familiar with examples of Einstein's humor. It would be interesting to see a sample to understand what they are referring to.

  6. I have a paper copy of the article about Grace the autistic woman who was supposed to be so singular in that she had a sense of humor.

    I thought she was very funny. The researchers seemed to be looking for ways to discredit her as being TRULY funny, so they quoted a conversation or a statement she made that was supposedly not funny and just nonsense.

    But I thought it was very funny. It looked to me like the researchers had missed a very sly witticism. So if the researchers are too dumb to get the joke, does that mean it wasn't a joke? If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it...

    I have to go see if I can find it. I mentioned it on Michelle's QT board ages ago.

  7. Thanks Camille. Let me know if you find the link.

    It's interesting to watch how researchers graple with autistics who can't fit their preconceptions. Reminds me of a post Zilari wrote a while back about how researchers described Kim Peek's abilities.

  8. If the researchers are too dumb to get the joke, maybe they are actually too NT. Autistic researchers for autism'll take care of those pesky ethical dillemas too.

    -Kassiane, who is very indisputably autistic and finds a number of autistic people very funny, and is found funny by quite a few people...

  9. Humor seems to be incredibly subjective, to the point where I'm fairly astonished that anyone would try to make something clinically significant out of a person's response (or lack thereof) to particular jokes.

    I've been accused of humorlessness before -- mainly in contexts where what is supposed to be "funny" is someone else being teased or humiliated. Apparently, a lot of people find that sort of thing funny. And I've also been accused of "inappropriate laughter" -- such as giggling at some internal association between something in the environment and something in my brain. It's like...make up your minds, people!

    Sort of tangential, but this reminds me of the whole thing about auties and sarcasm -- how we're not supposed to be able to understand it, or something.

    I don't know what the official doctrine is on this (not that there should be one!), but in my experience, I do often tend to take what people say literally rather than assume they are being sarcastic. Especially if I don't know them very well.

    But -- this doesn't mean I am incapable of understanding the concept of sarcasm. I mean, the word "sarcasm" has a dictionary definition, and being autistic doesn't make it impossible for me to understand that definition. I am also capable of using sarcasm, though I've noticed that people often tend to take me literally when I use it!

  10. I think we have a sense of humor. However since it's not the sense of humor that Neurotypicals have, it's disregarded. You can't have a sense of humor, unless it's OUR sense of humor.

  11. I am reknowned for having a sense of humor, and a very black one at that.

  12. Kassiane,
    It looked like you were laughing while you were being spanked. It made me laugh to look at it.

  13. Just as we all enjoy laughing each time you get intellectually spanked, John.

  14. NM,
    When did that ever happen?

  15. Sort of tangential, but this reminds me of the whole thing about auties and sarcasm -- how we're not supposed to be able to understand it, or something.

    That also seems to be something that is taken as a given, but there's little research on it. I see one study on PubMed that marginally supports the conclusion that Asperger autistics (but not HFAs) have trouble understanding sarcasm.

  16. When did that ever happen?

    Just now, and every single time prior to that.

  17. Joe,
    LOL, keep dreaming, son.

  18. Monty Python

  19. Tell the researchers to go and look at Bev's blog, especially her fantastic graphics. That'll mess with their heads.

  20. To be sure, AI was not -- under any circumstances -- NT.

    [heehee ... 'as' are the first two letters in my word verification, 'asftg']

  21. I am a constant smart ass in every thing I do, and I often get laughs from the things I say.

    I'm also a diagnosed aspie; so either something screwy, or I'm a paradox.


    Wouldn't be the first time.

  22. Also, it's pretty well known that even among autistics who have a good command of spoken language (either understanding or speaking or both), that pragmatic language tests show lower results than average NT performance on the tests. So it may very well be that in many of the jokes, aside from general language comprehension issues, that there are verbal or facial cues we're missing in various jokes. Imagine someone playing a TV show that relies heavily on physical comedy, but the picture isn't coming in on the TV and you have to just listen? It may not come across as being so funny then.

    A lot of times I find I either don't get jokes or it takes me a certain lag time for me to understand it. Yet, I have been told I can tell very funny jokes (especially if bouncing off of something someone else has done or said, like when politicians speak on TV).

  23. Note: I've deleted the last comment in the thread, by Anonymous. Generally I only delete comments that are in violation of Blogger's content policy. In this case, I don't have clear evidence that the comment is in violation, but I've been informed that the comment is potentially libelous. The person who informed me of this is the person who was mentioned in the comment. I thought it was best, under the circumstances, to grant the request to delete the comment.

  24. Hello everybody.
    My name is Daniel Terrins-Rudge and i am an aspy stand-up comedian.
    If any of you are on facebook please look me up and add me with a little message. i would much appreciate more of your views on Humour in relation to Autism and Asperger Syndrome. I've been doing comedy for almost 5 years and recently came in the top ten in a national competition for new comedians.

  25. @PRIMALbark: Congratulations to you. Thanks for stopping by.

  26. Some idiot told me that "Humor and Satire generally tend to escape true autists" without posting any relevant material supporting the position. The person obviously has no idea what they are talking about.

  27. This was a very well written piece and I enjoyed reading it. I enjoyed reading what I've always wondered, that Andy Kaufman may have had Asperger's Syndrome. I have Asperger's (coupled with Severe Depression) and I always appreciate reading articles that talk about famous, or known people that have Asperger's. My particular case when it involves social interaction/expression limits my ability to correctly discern ones emotions or intentions, in can also at times give me severe social anxiety depending where I am and who I'm with.

    I've always been interested with the misnomer some people have regarding Autistic spectrum symptoms. That ALL people with these symptoms are incapable of much creative expression, or like your article pointed out specifically, humor. I tell jokes, puns, humorous sarcasm etc. quite often and many people beyond my family and friends find me exceptionally funny. The problem I face as an Aspie is that I cannot always tell how people are reacting to it. So sometimes people think I am saying something serious and respond as such, only for me to have to correct the situation by stating that I was being sarcastic or I was joking. I am also a writer and a poet.

    I believe many Aspies have great potential for various forms of creative expression, they simply have to find what they are good at. Some may not do well telling jokes, but do well at designing architecture blue-prints; and other similar scenarios. I really enjoyed reading this and reading everyone responses to this.

    Thank You for making my morning feel better Joseph, take care.

  28. I took my 7 year old to be evaluated by a developmental neurologist. He in 2 minutes decided she definitely doesn't have Asperger's because she laughed with him at his silliness. Well that is not helpful to me. And her father has high functioning Asperger's and definitely has a sense of humor. To which the clinician said Asperger's is over-diagnosed. Rubbish!