Friday, 5 August 2011

Laughter and autism

Whilst appreciating that this blog is primarily about autism research and the (supposed) objectivity of science - see yesterdays post - there are times that I read through my various entries and question whether I am guilty of casting autism in too negative a light. Y'know things like 'autism is associated with this', or 'autism puts a person at greater risk of that'. Cumulatively whilst being based on the existing cold, hard, unfeeling science, maybe it doesn't help with any positive PR of autism as a person not just a condition and the experiences of people with autism or parents raising a child with autism, which whilst being fraught with struggles also have their 'sunshine' moments.

In this post, I am happy to talk about a real 'feel-good' piece of research on autism. This paper* by Hudenko and colleague published in the journal Autism looked at laughter from children with autism, and found that compared with controls, the laughter from children with autism was preferential to listeners over the control group laughter. I haven't read many research papers on autism down the years which convey such a positive message.

Interestingly this is not the first paper to look at laughter in connection to autism. Indeed, William Hudenko has published on it before in this paper, noting differences in the way that laughter was expressed in autism but not necessarily differences in its duration or on other parameters. The theme of laughter in autism being more internally-driven was also reported in this study; one could suggest that people with autism tend to laugh in reaction to what they pick out as being funny rather than 'just going with the crowd'. Is that such a bad thing?

I know a few people might say about such research 'so what'. But I don't. I think there are some very important points to take from such studies. For example, acknowledgement that children with autism have the propensity for enjoyment (the same as other children) and being able to express such enjoyment through gestures such as laughter. I doubt anyone would actually believe that children with autism don't laugh at all, but if the DSM or ICD descriptions were your only guide, you never know.

Given that autism is clinically defined by problems with reciprocal social interaction including the use of gestures, I find it interesting that listeners in the current study actually prefer the laughter from children with autism. Laughter is after all one of the most common social interactions outside of overt verbal discourse; indeed one could suggest that it is one of the most important.

Hudenko completes the abstract by stating that laughter from children with autism can help in relationship formation. This takes me back to some videos I saw quite a few years ago demonstrating play and music therapy with young children with autism. If I remember rightly, laughter was a core element of those relationships and one could argue the primary reinforcement of learning?

What gets me laughing? Well aside from my monthly phone and broadband bill which leaves me in stitches, I have been known to chuckle along to these two now and again. Now, is that four candles or folk handles?

* Hudenko WJ, Magenheimer MA. Listeners prefer the laughs of children with autism to those of typically developing children. Autism. 2011 Aug 2.