Why Not Understanding Sarcasm can be Such a Big Deal

By Kerry Magro, Self-Advocate, National Speaker, and Author

Is not understanding sarcasm a ‘big deal’? Turns out it is because it is so prevalent, and not understanding it makes you stand out.

Someone once said that ‘sarcasm is a metric for potential.’ Often at times, this is one of the hardest struggles for those with autism growing up.

Sarcasm is Everywhere in Day to Day Interactions

  • “Sarcasm so saturates 21st-century America that according to one study of a database of telephone conversations, 23 percent of the time that the phrase “yeah, right” was used, it was uttered sarcastically. Entire phrases have almost lost their literal meanings because they are so frequently said with a sneer. “Big deal,” for example. When’s the last time someone said that to you and meant it sincerely? “My heart bleeds for you” almost always equals “Tell it to someone who cares,” and “Aren’t you special” means you aren’t.” -Smithsonian Magazine

A lack of sarcasm is often one of the most common characteristics of struggling with an autism diagnosis along with things such as social and communication issues, difficulties reading body language, using different tones in their voices, and many more.

Children have been shown to be able to understand and recognize sarcasm as young as age 5.

  • “It’s practically the primary language” in modern society, says John Haiman, a linguist at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, and the author of Talk is Cheap: Sarcasm, Alienation and the Evolution of Language.

Not understanding something that happens so often as to be considered a ‘primary language’ can cause a lot of confusion, especially for someone who already has challenges with perceiving social norms in general.

My Personal Experience with Understanding Sarcasm

I remember as a young boy on the spectrum in computer class and hearing a joke that I didn’t find funny. It was a sarcastic joke by our teacher and while everyone else in the class laughed I was there completely blank. A girl looked at me after the joke had stopped like I had three heads.

To fit in, I’d often laugh whenever my peers would laugh so I could be part of the group.

Are you joking or are you serious became a common challenge for me during my adolescence.

“Conditions including autism, closed head injuries, brain lesions and schizophrenia can interfere with the ability to perceive sarcasm.”- Smithsonian Magazine

My Parents Step in to Help me with My Understanding

Luckily, my parents started pointing out sarcasm in everyday situations and phrases. I could remember a very short woman who was wearing heels one day at school and someone saying, “Oh wow, you are SO tall today” and me saying, “but wait, she’s still only 5 feet tall.” Along with my parents, teachers would quickly come in to make me understand the difference between a serious moment and sarcasm.

Not Perceiving Sarcasm Can Lead to Social Missteps

Unfortunately, due to my lack of understanding sarcasm, I would often befriend bullies who I thought wanted to be my friends. For example, I was overweight when I was a child and I tried to befriend a kid that would say “Oh, Kerry, you are so skinny,” and I’d take that as a compliment.

Helping Children Understand Communication

Kerry magro with a child with autismFor educators and parents, I often encourage them to be as clear in their messaging as humanly possible to avoid misunderstandings. This means avoiding sarcasm in many cases, making sure to explain it after each use to prevent confusion.

Otherwise many of these phrases may go over our heads including phrases such as ‘well that’s just great’, ‘yeah, right’, ‘thanks for the help’, ‘cool’, ‘obviously’, or ‘take your time’  that can be taken literally by many of us. Just think of how many times phrases like this can be said growing up, both in normal ways and sarcastic ones (and meaning the exact opposite). People with autism already have trouble perceiving the contextual clues, as well as having challenges with perceiving the normal clues of vocal tone and body language.

While this is a very pervasive problem for many people with autism, not every person with autism has trouble with understanding or using sarcasm. Many of my teenage mentees today can both understand and use sarcasm in their daily lives. Some of them out-sarcasm their neurotypical peers at times.

It’s a spectrum.

That’s always important to remember.

If your child had a social skills class make sure that this is addressed. Bring it up at a parent/teacher conference.

Also, this is something that you can mention in your child’s IEP as something they need additional help with. Understanding sarcasm is important.

Just think, when was the last time you heard that something was a ‘big deal’.

Now think of the last time you heard someone say something was a ‘big deal’, and it actually was.

Understanding Tone is Important to Navigating Life

Understanding sarcasm comes from understanding the greater context, the tone, and body language associated with what is being said. That’s exactly why it is so hard for most people with autism to recognize it, as those are all typically weak points for people with autism.

Albert Mehrabian published a study in 1971 that became famous for citing that 55 percent of communication being from body language, 38 percent from tone and 7 percent from the words themselves. While these numbers are based on only two studies and may be rather misleading, the point stands that even if these numbers are pretty far off the combination of body language and tone are very important in day to day interaction. If someone can’t understand body language and tone they are potentially missing very important parts of the message.

Becoming a Certified Autism Specialist™ can help therapists and educators alike learn to better understand these nuances of autism as well as shine light on how to approach teaching people with autism as successfully as possible. Social skills are constantly one of the bigger challenges for people with autism, and understanding how to motivate them and work with them will make all the difference for effective therapy.

Want to better understand autism and how to help people on the autism spectrum?

Learn more about autism certification

Learn More About Becoming A Certified Autism Specialist

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