• Inappropriate laughter is a common challenge faced by individuals with autism that can lead to social isolation and embarrassment or even school discipline.
  • The causes of inappropriate laughter in autism are not fully understood, but may be related to difficulties in social interaction, emotional processing, and behavior regulation.

In recent weeks, I have talked with two different parents whose kids were being disciplined in school, partly for laughing. For the record, only one of them is autistic. While autism and inappropriate laughter is a “thing,” it’s not exclusive to autism.

Over 14 years of advocacy work, I have seen this happen to all kinds of kids. Worth noting, maybe, is that I can only ever recollect it happening to boys.

Young man with autism smiling while using a tablet computer.

Do what you will with that completely unofficial data set.

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But, what usually happens is this. A scenario unfolds where kids are doing something they probably shouldn’t be doing. An adult intervenes. And, my client laughs.

Then, the adult perceives this as mocking or defiant behavior, and then my student client gets disciplined, often much more than the original issue. And, they often are disciplined more harshly than the other students in the incident.

Seriously, have these people never heard the expression ‘nervous laughter?’ I can’t believe I have to even address this.

Autism and Laughing

Autism is a complex neurodevelopmental disorder that affects communication, social interaction, and behavior. One of the challenges that autistic individuals may experience is inappropriate laughter.

Inappropriate laughter is characterized by laughing in situations that are not humorous or laughing at inappropriate times. This can be a source of embarrassment and social isolation for individuals with autism and their families.

Understanding the causes of inappropriate laughter in autism is crucial for developing effective management strategies. While the exact causes of inappropriate laughter in autism are not fully understood, research suggests that it may be related to difficulties in interpreting social cues, processing emotions, and regulating behavior. In addition, sensory issues, anxiety, and medication side effects may contribute to inappropriate laughter.

As a special education advocate who has had more autistic clients than I can count, I have come to understand the unique challenges they face. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) often affects communication and social interaction. It is a spectrum disorder, which means that it affects individuals differently and to varying degrees.

But, some kids with ADHD, Tourette’s, or other disabilities have experienced “inappropriate discipline” because of this too.

See, I’m going to call it inappropriate discipline. Because that’s what it is.

Inappropriate Laughter in Autism

I have encountered many cases of inappropriate laughter with my IEP clients. This type of laughter can be different from typical laughter and can be difficult for others to understand.

Once I posted about this on my Facebook page, there was no shortage of families who experienced the same thing.

no laughing matter

Characteristics of Inappropriate Laughter

It may occur in situations that are not typically considered funny, such as during a serious conversation or after someone has been hurt. The laughter may also be prolonged or excessive, and the individual may have difficulty stopping even when asked to do so.

One characteristic of inappropriate laughter in autism is that it may be unshared. This means that the individual may be laughing at something that others do not find funny or may not understand. This can lead to confusion and social challenges, as others may not know how to respond.

Differences from Typical Laughter

Inappropriate laughter in autism may differ from typical laughter in several ways. First, it may be triggered by different things than typical laughter. For example, an individual with autism may laugh in response to a sensory experience, such as a bright light or a loud noise.

Second, inappropriate laughter may serve a different purpose than typical laughter. While typical laughter is often used to express joy or amusement, inappropriate laughter in autism may be used to express other emotions, such as anxiety or discomfort.

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Causes of Inappropriate Laughter

This is way more common than people think. Most of this inappropriate laughing falls into one of two buckets.

Social Misunderstanding

One of the main causes of inappropriate laughter in individuals with autism is social misunderstanding. This can occur when we don’t understand the social cues or context of a situation.

For example, we may laugh at a joke that others don’t find funny, or we may laugh in a serious situation because we don’t understand the gravity of the situation.

It’s important to note that this is not intentional, and we’re not trying to be disrespectful or rude. It’s simply a result of our difficulty in understanding social situations and cues.

Atypical Emotional Responses

Another cause of inappropriate laughter from individuals is atypical emotional responses. This means that we may experience emotions differently than neurotypical individuals. For example, we may laugh when we’re feeling anxious or uncomfortable because we don’t know how else to express our emotions.

It’s important to understand that this is not a choice and we’re not trying to be inappropriate or disrespectful. It’s simply a result of our brain processing emotions differently than others.

And this is where I need all educators to read and reread this. It is not a choice. They are not being defiant, they are not mocking you or not taking you seriously.

Challenges in Social Settings

Social settings can be overwhelming for individuals with autism, and inappropriate laughter can make it even more challenging. They often struggle to understand social cues and nonverbal communication, which can lead to awkward situations. Inappropriate laughter can also make them appear rude or insensitive, even when I don’t mean to be.

This is just one of the many challenges that kids face.

When they laugh inappropriately, peers sometimes misinterpret the behavior. They may think that they’re laughing at them or not taking the situation seriously. This can create tension and strain relationships.

It’s essential for adults to understand that inappropriate laughter is not intentional and that it doesn’t reflect how the students feel about them. Educating people about autism and its associated behaviors can help them understand perspective and improve our interactions.

Punished for Laughing

School discipline is a whole ‘nother issue.

I have seen multiple students laugh in inappropriate situations, and the results were:

  • Punished when the others in the situation were not
  • punished more severely than others in the same situation

Discipline and IEPs or 504 Plans

Students with an IEP or 504 plan, or being evaluated for one, have legal protections in place so that they are not inaccurately punished for something that is due to their disability.

This is why it’s essential for all parents to read their IEP procedural safeguards. Do not rely on someone else’s interpretation of them. Read and learn them yourself.

However, many of these protections have IEP timelines attached, so you want to act with a sense of urgency.

Learn what a Manifestation Determination Hearing is, and how to prepare for one. Particularly if your child was suspended.

If the punishment was social ostracization, and not a detention or suspension, I’d ask for an IEP meeting to discuss. Teachers and adults set the tone in classrooms as to how to treat disabled students. How they handle these situations is very important for the disabled child’s inclusion and mental well-being.

Behavioral Interventions

Behavioral interventions are an effective way to manage inappropriate laughter in individuals with autism. I’m not suggesting we take ABC data and try to reward and punish a skill into a child. The interventions should usually include direct teaching.

One strategy is to identify triggers for inappropriate laughter and teach replacement behaviors.

For example, if the individual laughs in response to a certain sound, you can teach them to cover their ears or take deep breaths instead. Adjusting the environment can also help, such as reducing sensory input or providing a designated safe space for the individual to calm down.

Another behavioral intervention is the use of visual supports. Visual supports can help the individual understand what is expected of them and provide a visual reminder of appropriate behaviors. Social stories, picture schedules, and visual cues can all be effective tools.

You can also do role-playing and in-the-moment real-time feedback when a situation occurs.

Educational Approaches

Educational approaches can also be effective in managing inappropriate laughter in individuals with autism. Teaching social skills and appropriate behavior can help the individual understand what is expected of them in social situations. Role-playing and practicing social skills can also be helpful.

It is important to note that each individual with autism is unique and what works for one person may not work for another. It is important to work with a professional to develop a personalized plan for managing inappropriate laughter. With patience, understanding, and effective management strategies, individuals with autism can learn to manage their inappropriate laughter and thrive in social situations.

Support for Individuals and Families

As a person with autism or a family member of someone with autism, it’s important to know that there is support available to help manage inappropriate laughter. Here are some options to consider:

Therapy and Counseling Options

Working with a therapist or counselor can be beneficial in addressing inappropriate laughter. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) are two types of therapy that have been shown to be effective in managing inappropriate behaviors in individuals with autism.

CBT focuses on identifying and changing negative thought patterns, while ABA uses positive reinforcement to teach new behaviors and skills.

Community and School Support

Community and school support can also be helpful in managing inappropriate laughter. Joining a local support group for individuals with autism and their families can provide a sense of community and connection.

Schools can also provide support through individualized education plans (IEPs) and accommodations, such as sensory breaks or a quiet space to retreat to when feeling overwhelmed.

In addition to therapy and community support, it’s important to remember that managing inappropriate laughter is a process that takes time and patience. It’s important to celebrate small successes and not get discouraged by setbacks.

With the right support and resources, individuals with autism and their families can learn to manage inappropriate laughter and live happy, fulfilling lives.

Research and Insights

In IEP situations, you’d think that all you’d have to do is mention the concept of “nervous laughter” and everyone would say, “Oh, right, I forgot.”

But, no. Go prepared with data. Here are a few studies you can cite to demonstrate that yeah, this is a “thing.”

Current Studies on Laughter in Autism

One study published in PubMed Central [1] investigated whether humor comprehension and appreciation could be improved in children with autism by providing contextual support suggesting that humor was to be expected.

The study found that providing contextual support did indeed improve humor comprehension and appreciation in children with autism.

Can laughter be a form of stimming for someone with autism?

Yes, laughter can be a form of stimming for someone with autism. Stimming, or self-stimulatory behavior, is a repetitive behavior that can help individuals with autism regulate their sensory experiences. Laughter can be a way for individuals with autism to regulate their emotions and sensory experiences.

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