Monday, June 2, 2014

Autism Diaries: Irony and Jokes

"Yeah, right."

This expression so routinely expresses ironic skepticism that linguists have joked that, in addition to having a double negative, English also has a double positive.

Perhaps because I wrote my dissertation on irony, I'm prone to use irony even with J. And, increasingly, he gets it, as we see in this recent text message exchange:

J: I'm stuck in traffic and am going to be home really late.

Me: Yeah right.
J: No, I'm telling the truth.
J is as aware of the irony in "yeah, right" as I am of the fact that whenever he tells me he's going to be late, he's actually going to be on time. He's aware of my irony even though irony is supposed to be particularly difficult for people with autism.

Of course, "yeah, right" is the kind of conventionalized irony that, as with the conventional metaphors I discussed earlier, can be learned and memorized in the same way that vocabulary words are. But learning that "yeah, right" can mean something like the opposite of its apparent meaning can help you realize something much broader: namely, that you should always be on the alert for other instances in which people may mean the opposite of what their words appear to imply. And I'm guessing there's nothing inherent to autism that should prevents people from being alert to this. 

J certainly is. Recently, for example, my Monday evening class was canceled, as it often is, and J asked me, as he often does, "Why aren't you at class"? He prefers for me to be at class, since while I'm there, I can't bug him about finishing his homework.

This time, instead of giving him the response he was expecting, I said "I'm staying home because I love you very much and want to spend more time with you."

"You're joking!" was his immediate reply, a strange smile on his face.

"But I do love you very much!"

"You're joking about wanting to spend more time with me!"

He, too, has been playing around with verbal jokes lately--another supposed deficiency of people on the autistic spectrum. Here's another recent text exchange:
Me: Put on your shoes and docks.

J: What are docks?

Me: Can't you read typos?

J: Can't you read jokes?
Part of what's going on here is ego: J's been realizing that conversations can be competitive. Newly aware of this thing called having the last word, he wants it to be his.

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