In the past few years, Pamela has slowly started to understand a variety of styles of humor. Today's example is the verbal pun. Pamela has been stimming on the Lord's Prayer and the Doxology lately. Now, don't get me wrong. I'd much rather her stim on something innocuous instead of George Carlin's "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television."
To avoid making Pamela feel incompetent, we seek playfully ways to turn it into a conversation. This morning, Steve struck gold!
Pamela: [For the fifth time.] "Our Father, who art in Heaven . . ." [Waiting for one of us to recite the script]
Steve: "Howard be Thy name."
Pamela: [Loud giggle.]
Steve: "Our Father, who art in Heaven, Howard by Thy name."
Pamela: [Another loud giggle.]
Steve: "What? Howard be Thy name."
Tammy: "Nooooo! Howard be Opa's name."
Pamela: [Piercing shriek followed by a giggle.]
Tammy: "Is God's name Howard?"
Pamela: "No! It's Hallowed."
Tammy: "Do you know what hallowed means?"
Pamela: "Means? Means?" [She is asking me to tell her.]
Tammy: "Hallowed means holy. We love God's name because He is God."
Getting puns spotlights Pamela's level of auditory processing because ears are the source of the humor. Puns depend upon either homophones or words that sound nearly the same (hallowed sounding a lot like Howard). The humor involves changing a word in a sentence for another one that sounds the same but means something different. "Why was ten scared? Because seven ate nine." Puns also depend upon context. Steve could have used either Harold or Howard. He chose the latter because Pamela had the context that Howard is a name (her grandfather) and she doesn't know anyone named Harold.
People either love or hate puns, or paronomasia. William Shakespeare laced his plays with thousands of them. Mercutio, knowing was he was about to die in Romeo and Juliet, said, "If you look for me tomorrow you will find I am a grave man." Over a century later, Samuel Johnson, author of the dictionary, defined puns as "the lowest form of humor." Judging by the expression on his face in this painting by Joshua Reynolds, I question whether or not he actually had a sense of humor! Some scientists are doing some fascinating research into this love-hate relationship with puns.
Puns often confuse children in the autism spectrum and many "how-to" guides on autism caution you to explain puns or avoid them. Some even suggest teaching our children to laugh at puns or make them up to improve their social skills. If you have to teach a person to laugh at puns, then they are not really funny!
What did we do to teach Pamela to get puns? Nothing directly!
When we started RDI three years ago, we worked on the idea of variation. We played a game in which we tossed a ball (David, Pamela and I). The first step was getting a pattern going. Once Pamela got the pattern, we introduced a tiny variation: using a different ball, poorly aiming the ball, etc. We often laughed, and Pamela began to see that variation can be funny. She began to laugh at the unexpected! In time, she cracked up when someone got bonked on the head or the balls came flying fast and furious or David threw a grape instead.
We added variation into all aspects of our life: if something we were doing had a pattern, then it was ripe for variation: laundry, cooking, shopping, reciting poems, reading a book, etc. Then, we threw in some anticipation to ratchet up the excitement. Going back to the ball example, David faked two or three throws while making his facial expressions bigger and bigger before completing the toss. I might look at Pamela to throw, fake it once or twice, and then slow enough for her to process my trick, switch my aim to David. In time, we could play that trick on Pamela because she understood the humor.
One of the biggest problems our kids have in real life is unexpected change. Helping them to anticipate and sometimes enjoy variation can avoid meltdowns. When I dropped her soda at a concert the other day, Pamela did not get a bit upset because she had drank enough to satisfy her. When the waitress at the Mexican restaurant told her they only had honey mustard, not yellow mustard, she took it in stride. While our work on variation has not completely inoculated her from meltdowns, she has come a long way.
What does variation in activities have to do with puns? Pamela clearly translated the idea of variation being funny in the ball tossing games to her scripts. When someone varies the script with a word that is almost the same, she truly finds it funny. We do not have to wink our eye or nudge her. She laughs because she gets the humor.
The same thing applies to nonsense humor like the Scotsman gag in Monty Python. Pamela caught onto the humor of people being zapped by aliens and turned into Scotsmen. Three minutes and thirty seconds into the skit, a bobby stands next to a woman with a baby carriage (or should I say, pram). You expect one of the adults to transform. The anticipation comes out of not knowing which one. The bobby morphs, followed by the woman. What makes that segment especially funny is when a red beard appears on the baby blanket and the carriage rolls off to Scotland with the others.
Humor, like play, ought not to be taught. Why? Redoing gaps in a child's development, starting with infant level milestones, allows play and humor to emerge on their own.