Brenda tried to explain sarcasm to her son, Jordan. "It is when someone says the opposite of what they mean." She followed up with an example, "Suppose it is raining very hard outside, sometimes people will say, ‘What a beautiful day,’ sarcastically, what they really mean it, it is not a beautiful day."
"That just doesn’t make sense," Jordan stated, "Why don’t people just say what they mean? If someone said it was a beautiful day when it was raining, I would think they liked the rain."
Jordan is on the autism spectrum (ASD). He is high-functioning, mainstreamed in his classes at school and has a high level of language development. But, as most of those with autism, Jordan doesn’t "get" sarcasm, irony or metaphors. He speaks and understands in very literal terms.
Sarcasm in Everyday Speech
Many people use sarcasm everyday, some more than others. According to the Center for Autism Blog, sarcasm or irony is used in conversation an average of once every 2 minutes. For those with autism, that means that once every 2 minutes of conversation they are confused. Imagine not being able to follow a conversation because you don’t understand what someone is talking about.
Typically, sarcasm is understood through tone of voice, inflection, content and facial cues. In the weather example, the speaker may have said the word "beautiful" in a different tone than the rest of the sentence or he may have elongated the word -beauuuutiful- to make his point. But for those with autism, the social cues often go unnoticed, leaving them confused. As Jordan said, he would just think the person talking liked rain.
Picking Up on Sarcasm
Some children with autism learn to recognize sarcasm as they mature. At least some of the time. One teen, Ethan, felt he now understood and could recognize sarcasm although when he was younger this was very difficult for him. Even when he didn’t quite understand the sarcasm, he could recognize that it was sarcasm and from there sort out what was really meant. But Ethan didn’t always pick up that something was sarcastic. Recently, while watching television, he asked his mother to explain a scene to him. He said it just didn’t make any sense. In the scene, one friend was being sarcastic to the other. Ethan didn’t get that it was sarcasm and was confused about the scene. So even though Ethan is much better about recognizing sarcasm, there are times he still gets confused.
But, for Ethan to recognize sarcasm took a lot of time. HIs family knew he didn’t get it when others were sarcastic and would often simply state the word, "sarcastic" when Ethan looked confused. At home, or in other places where Ethan felt comfortable, he would ask, "That was sarcastic, wasn’t it?" Ethan would then process the conversation over in his mind, working out the meaning.
Applied Behavior Analysis to Teach Sarcasm
A study, published in Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders in January 2013 outlines how researchers used ABA to teach children how to recognize and appropriately react to sarcastic statements. Researchers used the Skills Curriculum to teach 3 children with autism to detect sarcasm and then respond accordingly. ABA has often been thought to be beneficial for young children and for teaching simple concepts. This study expanded that belief by succeeding in teaching school age children and having the information they learned used in a variety of settings and environments.
"Teaching Children with Autism to Detect and Respond to Sarcasm," 2013, Jan, Angela Persicke, Jonathan Tarbox, Jennifer Ranick, Megan St. Clair, Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders
"The 3 Groups of Symptoms That Characterize an Autism Spectrum Disorder," 2011, Aug. 2, AutismSpectrumDirectory.com
"Understanding of Metaphor, Irony and Sarcasm in High Functioning Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders: Its Relationship to Theory of Mind, 2010, Stacy Diaa, Mellon-Mays Fellow and Honors Thesis Research, Smith College
Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of What Went Right: Reframe Your Thinking for a Happier Now, Idiot’s Guide to Adult ADHD, Idiot’s Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love, and Essential Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. She can be found on Twitter @eileenmbailey and on Facebook at eileenmbailey.