Autism is a disorder present from birth, characterized by problems with social interaction and communication and unusually restrictive and repetitive interests and behavior. While these features can make it difficult for autistic people to participate in the world around them, even those who do not meet the criteria for diagnosis can struggle with their struggles’ impact on how they interact with others. One such common complication is the difficulty many autistic people have with understanding and interpreting sarcasm.
As most people know it, sarcasm implies or directly states something that does mean what it literally says; its intention is usually to convey a meaning that is the opposite of its literal meaning. The simplest example: someone criticizes you for being late to work by saying, “Well done.” In this case, the criticism is literal and sincere, while the praise is sarcastic.
Conveying sarcasm can be a problem even for those without autism. Depending on intonation and other nonverbal cues, it’s easy to confuse a statement that means its opposite with a statement that is its opposite. People communicating sarcasm often use exaggerated voice tone, volume, and speed to convey their intent clearly. But these features can be complicated for autistic people to interpret; even those who do not meet the criteria for the disorder may have difficulty understanding tone of voice or recognizing nonverbal cues.
It’s important to note that a person who doesn’t understand sarcasm may not automatically pick up on every kind of indirect communication. A nonfiction article from the National Autistic Society suggests that people without autism have trouble understanding all types of “indirect reference,” including devices such as metaphor, understatement, and implication — none of which necessarily involve sarcasm or exaggeration.
Understanding Sarcasm in ASD
People on the autism spectrum may have particular problems detecting sarcasm, especially if they are high-functioning and verbal. It’s hard to know exactly what goes on in their minds when someone uses phrases like “got it” or “I see,” which are often utilized sarcastically by neurotypical people who are aware of the problems autistic people have with interpreting this kind of language.
An article from Autism Speaks cites a study where researchers asked participants to describe how they felt about video clips containing both literal and sarcastic interpretations of such phrases. While neurotypical participants often said they found the literal interpretation more convincing, some high-functioning autistic participants said they found the sarcastic interpretation more convincing.
Some researchers have suggested that a “lack of understanding” of nonverbal cues may be a bigger problem for autistic people than literal comprehension. Still, it’s important to note that sarcasm is only one type of indirect communication. There are also implications, which don’t involve exaggeration or mockery but are just as hard for some people to understand.
The difficulty that many autistic people have in understanding sarcasm is also often attributed to neurological differences. A theory called the “theory of mind deficit” suggests that autism is characterized by deficits in cognitive processes necessary for understanding others’ thoughts and feelings — including their intentions, both positive and negative.
A more recent theory suggests that autistic people have trouble inferring what others are thinking — not because they lack cognitive processes, but because they have difficulty processing the information in a way that makes it useful to them.
An article from Autism-Europe indicates that this deficit isn’t universal among all people with autism; some researchers believe that the ability to understand sarcasm may develop naturally in some people with autism while staying consistently underdeveloped in others.
Sarcasm and ASD: What About Kids?
The question of whether or not autistic children can learn to recognize sarcasm is controversial among researchers, who say that there’s no clear consensus on how it should be defined. Some believe that understanding sarcasm is a learned social skill that can be taught to children with autism. Others say that understanding sarcasm involves a complex mix of cognitive and social skills, which would make these kinds of skills difficult, if not impossible, for people with certain forms of autism to pick up on.
While there’s no way to be sure whether or not an autistic child can understand sarcasm, possible clues include the ability to identify emotions in others correctly and a well-developed sense of humor.