Funny Business

November 21, 2011 at 8:25 AM Leave a comment

The Autism Spectrum is no laughing matter, but the cognitive science of humor offers hope in our link to children who suffer alone too much of the time.

Susan LaPierre was a friend and personal hero before her children were born. Fifteen years later, watching her older son smile, laugh, and reach out for hugs, I realized she had achieved stardom. Children with Asperger’s Syndrome rarely watch people, wait patiently for an opening, and then delight them with ironic observations. Not everyone has a mother who teaches them the cognitive path to humor.

Unlocking children on the Autism Spectrum has become a subject of great concern as the incidence rate for the diagnosis has accelerated.  The biopic on Temple Grandin offered hope arising from one woman’s perseverance and the family members and mentors who championed her cause. Yet, the reality of education today is the creation of isolated autism programs serving this burgeoning population. Online educational programs and “virtual peers” simulations have demonstrated improvement in some outcomes, but early diagnosis of language acquisition disorders and patterning by well-trained parents may offer the most promise in preventive treatment of the underlying causes of the relational aspect of the disorder.

I was intrigued by an interview in the Boston Sunday Globe with Matthew Hurley, one of the co-authors of “Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind.” Hurley is a cognitive scientist working on his doctorate at Indiana University, who had conceived of the idea in an undergraduate term paper. He considers humor to be universal, yet uniquely personal, and is looking at it as an important path to truncating our pursuit of erroneous thoughts and actions. So, what are the implications for one who has been bypassed in this otherwise universal trait? Can we reverse-engineer the humorless world of autism?**

Seeing children change as they begin to “know” the jokes that they cannot instinctively “get” can be heart-warming for all involved. The therapeutic value of humor in the sense of belonging in social settings and the intrinsic reward of successful interactions should not be underestimated.

**Cool coincidence…On Amazon.com, notes on the authors of  “Inside Jokes” included the comment below from Simon Baron-Cohen, Professor of Developmental Psychopathology and Director, Autism Research Centre, Cambridge University. It doesn’t answer my question, but I really like the idea that these guys know each other…

” What’s so funny about a robot with a sense of humor? In this highly original analysis, Hurley, Dennett, and Adams try to locate the holy grail, the essence of a joke, by using a variety of tools (from computer science, cognitive science, linguistics, philosophy, and even evolutionary psychology) to dissect why we laugh. This powerful team of authors goes a long way to explain why and when we laugh, and in doing so uncover insights about how the mind works. But like the proverbial millipede who, trying to analyze how he lifts each of his legs in the precise sequence, starts tripping over, readers should beware that getting inside a joke risks dehumorizing it!”

 

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