Teaching My Autistic Son To Laugh: a woman’s gift

bathshebaAt the conclusion of Thomas Hardy’s novel ‘Far From The Madding Crowd‘ tragic heroine Bathsheba Everdene marries Gabriel Oak, the man she had rejected at the opening of the novel.  Although Oak finds his bride ‘remarkably like the girl’ he had fallen in love with years before, their marriage cannot erase the toll which tragedy has taken. Bathsheba has learned the value of love through suffering; the result, we are told, is that she is no longer able to laugh. This detail stuck in my head when I first read the novel in 1986.  Part of me was seduced by the idea of being a tragic heroine, smiling enigmatically in the corner of a room, beyond the blessing of laughter.

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But it was already too late: the year before,  I had met a woman who taught me how to laugh. This woman came into my life at a time when it seemed bleak; I was in hospital due to problems with a pregnancy which ended eventually with the birth of a stillborn daughter.  There were moments when the grief seemed so unbearable I wasn’t sure I would recover. Much of that time is a blur now, but I remember my new friend’s daily visits to the hospital during those long months and how these invariably ended in helpless, side-creasing laughter. Why? What did we talk about? I don’t know. We didn’t tell each other jokes, that’s for sure. But a nurse would often put her head around the door of my side-ward room: ‘what’s going on in here? Can you two keep it down please?’ My friend was hilarious: her quirky perspectives, directness, delivery and hilarious expressions cracked me up.

We laughed together through that time and for years afterwards, frequently hysterical with joy. That’s not to say, of course, that we only laughed: she was with me in the darkest moments too, holding everything together and bringing acceptance to places which seemed to make no sense. I suppose I wasn’t surprised when, eventually, she decided to become a nun. Selfishly I missed her and wanted her back: I knew that her life had blessed mine, not least with her gift of laughter and the lesson that around every shadow there is light.

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Last week at my French class I was snorting with laughter at something that had amused me – some error I’d made or a nonsense I’d spotted – when the woman who sits next to me (laughing equally hard) said: ‘You’re so funny. You’re just so funny’. Many years after she gave me the gift of laughter, I hope my friend would be pleased to know I still guffaw through my office door and collapse in fits of giggles in the street. There is something deliciously unguarded and out of control about laughter: at its height it can leave me gasping for breath or clutching the stitch in my side. Anyone who has ever succumbed to it will know the sheer abandon of laughter.

Perhaps it is this state of temporary incapacity which connects laughter to the world of the child. Although I say that I learned to laugh in 1985, what I probably mean is that I learned to laugh again in 1985. We can lose the capacity for joy as we age, especially when faced with grief and loss,  a process which Hardy illustrates through Bathsheba Everdene.  The gift from my friend – at a time in my life when I was the same age as the Hardy heroine – was perhaps to put me back in touch with the child who had spent her school days laughing.

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I don’t know whether I’d call Dylan’s early laughter an expression of joy. I certainly didn’t think of it that way. The first time I heard him laugh Dylan was three years old. It was late at night and my husband and I were exhausted by another evening of battling to get Dylan to sleep. The stress levels in the house were sky high: not just mine and my husband’s, I now realise, but Dylan’s too. Looking back we were doing everything wrong but it was all we knew to do at the time.

last laughI remember we had finally collapsed on the sofa. Upstairs, the house was quiet:  Dylan, we thought, was sleeping at last. We were whispering to each other, afraid to break the silence. But then we heard the strangest sound: it started as a low chortle then grew louder and more sustained. My husband and I looked at each other puzzled. I stood up and went to listen at the bottom of the stairs. Dylan was laughing!  I remember how at first I was reassured and almost relieved at this. If Dylan was laughing, then perhaps everything was alright? How could he be autistic if he was laughing like that? Perhaps he was laughing at us for even thinking it?

But I soon realised it was nothing of the sort; the laughter was a sign that Dylan was stressed. I came to dread Dylan’s late night laughter, especially if I were alone with him. There was something spooky and unsettling about it. I remember the reaction of a friend, visiting from the US: ‘I hate to say this Liz but it sounds like he’s kind of possessed’, she said. I shuddered to hear this but knew what my friend meant: there was something maniacal and other-worldly about Dylan’s laughter.

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sophie scottI thought about Dylan’s spooky laughter the other day while listening to a programme on BBC Radio Four.  ‘The Life Scientific’ featured Sophie Scott,  stand-up comedian and Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London. Laughter, Scott noted, is important because it is a universal language understood by everyone. It is, furthermore, a genuinely social language; neurological research shows our brains are wired to respond to and join in with laughter. We usually laugh with people we know, Scott explained; as well as signalling amusement, it communicates affiliation, agreement and affection. When we laugh with someone we are showing them that we like them and that we belong to the same group. Laughter, Scott argues, is probably the most important social communication tool we have; it is the ‘belongingness’ of laughter which makes it a human rather than primate behaviour.  I realised, as I listened, that what had spooked me about Dylan’s laughter was the fact it wasn’t social; Dylan was laughing by himself and, removed from any community or shared affection, I couldn’t understand it or join in.

All the time I was listening to the programme (which I’d happened across) I was anticipating a reference to autism; so much of what Scott had to say explained the discomfort I had felt at Dylan’s late night laughter. Surely, I thought to myself, she will make reference to people who can’t join in with laughter because they do not pick up the social context? Scott didn’t reference autism but it’s interesting to listen to the programme with autism in mind. You can hear the full programme here:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03bdpl5

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happy and sadRecently I have been teaching Dylan to laugh. I started doing the actions for some verbs because my exaggerated behaviours captured his attention:  sleeping (fake snoring with a sudden ‘wake up’), sneezing (like Sneezy in Snow White), crying (more on this in a later post) and laughing all proved popular with Dylan.  In time it became a game between us with Dylan requesting a particular action, sometimes by showing me what he wanted me to do. Crying and laughing have a remarkably similar vocalisation ( a ha ha ha ha ha) accompanied by similarly heaving shoulders, but I try to vary my facial expression. This, I think, is a good game: Dylan enjoys the caricature and it develops skills of imitation (of the action) and verbalisation (of a word) as well as supporting his socialisation (understanding the behaviour).

We have done a lot of patient work with these verbs. Initially this involved getting Dylan to recognise when someone is, for example, laughing (in real life or on a TV screen) then moving on to naming the behaviour and finally to copying it. I don’t think I had considered that this process might lead to Dylan spontaneously initiating laughter, so imagine my joy when during a cinema visit Dylan laughed, spontaneously and appropriately!  Perhaps because of the repeated modelling of the process that I’ve done, Dylan named his behaviour for me immediately afterwards:  ‘Dee-an la-ing’ he said to me, ‘Dee-an la-ing’.  As we walked back to the car Dylan told me several times, with obvious pleasure, that we had been laughing in the cinema. This seemed to be a break through moment for Dylan.

flushed awaySince then he has laughed again in the cinema (and at other times) but it is the moment in ‘Flushed Away’ he likes me to talk to him about. The particular scene involves a rat (or ‘mouse’ as Dylan calls it) being flushed down a toilet – something Dylan finds hilarious. ‘The mouse went down the toilet. Mummy and Dylan were laughing’ is a phrase I say often and on demand. What I hope I’m reinforcing through this is the shared and social nature of laughter; if Dylan names laughter, or wants me to recount that we laughed together at something, then he is developing a sense of something that he does as part of a community, not alone in his room because he is stressed (though he still does that too). I am inordinately pleased with Dylan’s developing laughter.  When I wrote an earlier blog post (‘I Said No’: Re-thinking Dylan’s speech) I included in the transcript of Dylan’s speech a reference to him laughing (at the Disney film ‘Planes’). I was aware that this wasn’t, strictly speaking, ‘speech’, but I left it in because to me it represents something as valuable as speech.  As Sophie Scott says, laughter is probably the most important social communication tool there is.

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While I am delighted that Dylan is learning social laughter I also now enjoy hearing him have fits of giggles on his own. I wouldn’t want to deny him this solitary use of laughter which seems to be functional and a release from stress. We could all take a lesson from Dylan there I think: laughter’s certainly less harmful than most other symptoms of (or drugs for) stress-related conditions.  But as well as this I now get to hear Dylan’s bursts of child-like joy, which delight me. I suppose this post has been reflecting on joy in the face of adversity –  that even amidst loss, grief and difficulty there can be laughter.  I hope that through this post you not only hear the sound of me and Dylan laughing, but the peal of laughter from a house of nuns somewhere in England.

7 thoughts on “Teaching My Autistic Son To Laugh: a woman’s gift

  1. Ben used to copy other people’s laughter. I just found it so sad. I remember having to make a concerted effort to make him laugh Ben’s laugh. I drew rude pictures one day and he just laughed his heart out for the first 9 until I did the nose picker. (It was a little too personal.) I know I’m being gross, but it was the first time we really shared laughter, Ben was about 8 years old. I figured it was a way we could share communication. He still remembers.

    From then on, I was hooked. I would do anything to make him laugh. You see, Ben is quite high functioning, always had words, but I see similarities between he and Dylan that I find uncanny. That laughter would be such work…

    Being raised Roman Catholic, I just love nun stories, and I am proud that you saw the good in the gentle woman. I am sorry for your pain, though, in the loss of your child.

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  2. Hi there – nice to hear from you. It’s really interesting to hear your memory of your son’s laughter when he was younger. I love your phrase ‘to make him laugh Ben’s laugh’. I suppose it is about helping our son’s to find their own voices and to feel proud of them. What I didn’t say in my post about laughter is that when Dylan was very young – before his autism diagnosis – I used to think he had a great sense of humour. There’s part of me believes Dylan has never really lost that. Not the social laughter I wrote about in this post, but a sense of fun and mischief. I remember when he was about a year old sitting on my knee and deliberately mixing up animal noises in responses to my reading in a picture book, then hooting with laughter. Your description of the work you did with Ben reminded me of that. Thanks for your kind words about my daughter – the anniversary is approaching and this time of year always makes me a bit melancholy with it. As to my friend, well she writes me once in a while and I did tell her about this blog so maybe she’ll even manage to have a peek one day and read this. She actually entered an Anglican convent – I think those are probably quite unusual…

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  3. Another thought provoking piece, I do love reading your blog and am so glad to have found it and ‘met’ you. Our Tim smiles socially but not at you directly but I have never heard him laugh. He enjoys other people laughing and having fun and his eyes shine. I can’t remember if anyone worked on laughter with him when he was little. I doubt it somehow. i can remember my mother trying to encourage him to say ‘haha’ and he would repeat it back crossly. I am interested too in your description of how you don’t respond to certain sorts of humour, I never see puns unless someone points them out and never find them funny, Joanna

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    • Hi Joanna – lovely to hear from you. Because I have corresponded with your dad a little bit in the past I have this sense of ‘knowing’ Tim, although I don’t. It’s interesting that you don’t recall having heard him laugh – and I love your report of him crossly repeating ‘ha ha’! Dylan sometimes does this – give me something he knows that I want but utterly undercutting me with his delivery! Your observation about Tim enjoying hearing other people having fun is a precious one. I didn’t realise until my daughter went to live in Scotland how much Dylan had enjoyed listening in to her and I talking and laughing – after she’d left I became aware of how much Dylan missed that. I’d not realised before how much pleasure D takes from witnessing language and laughter. Thank you for reminding me of that. Thanks also for your observation that you don’t see puns – it’s good to know I’m not alone in this! It’s very good to have ‘met’ you through this 🙂

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  4. Pingback: Why Doesn’t My Autistic Son Cry Tears? | Living with Autism

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