When my son Brooks was first diagnosed with autism at 18-months-old, there was nothing remotely funny about it. Without exception, it was probably the single most painful experience my husband and I have ever had.
But as time passed and as we began to settle into our new identities, I believe that our sense of humor saved us. Fortunately, my husband is one of the funniest people I know (and I know a lot of funny people). And I’m lucky enough to have inherited a modicum of my dad’s sense of humor, so laughter is a highly valued commodity in our family.
But as I already mentioned, and at the risk of stating the obvious: Autism isn’t funny.
Or is it? For us, the humor crept in slowly. While we were waiting at the 92nd St. Y to hear notable autistic savant Temple Grandin speak, we were discussing Brooks’s recent habit of repeating whatever is said to him. The technical term for repeating instead of responding is echolalia, and we were plenty disturbed by it. After analyzing and then re-analyzing whether Brooks was using it in a good way and what strategies we might employ to limit it, my husband said: “How many echolaliacs does it take to change a light bulb?” I smiled and said I didn’t know. He responded: “How many echolaliacs does it take to change a light bulb?”
Humor has also helped us cushion the blows that hit autism parents every few months: the new set of reports from therapists, full of cold, hard numbers that document the percentage of delay your child has. You never want to read these. Any excuse will do: you’re too tired; you can’t find your glasses; you need new glasses. One day when I ran out of excuses, I read that Brooks, who was 3, had the expressive language skills of a one-and-a-half year old. I felt sick: “Our son is behind half of his life!” My husband countered: “So when he’s 80, he’ll feel like he’s 40.”
Before long, I found myself sharing our new-found habit of laughing at ourselves with other families. Brooks got his occupational therapy at a local sensory gym where the waiting room teemed with dedicated parents who eagerly shared their success stories, but just as often commiserated on their disappointments. One day, a little boy was having a big meltdown while his mom waited quietly on the bench with the patience of a saint. We all heard the boy screaming and saw him kicking. We all knew that he perceived this simple end of his session as life-threatening. It was torture for him to experience, and it was torture for us to watch. I turned to the mom and said: “You know, I truly believe that our kids will be fine—we’ll be the ones that need to get institutionalized.” I think the mom actually laughed, and I know that she appreciated the sentiment.
Many years ago, when I held my dad’s hand as they wheeled him into the operating room for quadruple bypass surgery, he said: “This is just like E.R.” Only now, as I’m writing this, do I realize that he was the one who showed me how to lean on laughter to stave off tragedy. Did he know back then that he was giving me the key to raising his grandson?
Comedy legend Bob Hope once said: “I have seen what a laugh can do. It can transform almost unbearable tears into something bearable, even hopeful.” Then again, he also said: “Kids are wonderful, but I like mine barbecued.”