Teaching Sarcasm

Yesterday my three-and-a-half year old daughter asked me, “What does ‘sarcastic’ mean?”

“Ummm… well, uh…  It is when you say something, but you actually mean the opposite of what you say.  Like when you say, ‘It sure is cold out there’ on a really hot day.  Or when you say, ‘This soup is way too hot to eat,’ but the soup is really cold.”

“’Sarcastic’ means hot or cold?”

One of the reasons my daughter struggled to understand my explanation of sarcasm, other than the sub-par definition and the fact that she’s still a little shaky on the meaning of “opposite,” is because the ability to detect sarcasm and irony doesn’t develop until ages 5 or 6.  In neurotypical children, this skill continues to develop into early teens (Creusere, 2000; Dews et al., 1996; Harris & Pexman, 2003; Pexman et al., 2011). For children with ASDs (ASD), understanding and using non-literal and counterfactual language, like sarcasm, is particularly difficult.

In order to detect and respond appropriately to sarcasm, the listener must recognize the social cues of the speaker indicating that the statement is intended to be sarcastic, not literal. (That’s why sarcasm doesn’t translate very well in e-mail.) Recognizing social cues involves perspective taking, or the ability to infer what others are thinking or feeling.  Children with ASD have specific deficits in perspective taking (Filippova & Astington, 2008; Happe´ , 1994; Pexman et al., 2011).

So why does this matter?

On average, sarcasm or irony is used once every 2 minutes in conversation.  Imagine if you misunderstood a statement once every 2 minutes?  We use sarcasm to express humor and relay our opinions or attitude.  Humor, opinions and attitudes are part of the way we connect to other people and build relationships.  Without the ability to detect sarcasm, it is impossible for children with ASD to fully engage with peers, making them vulnerable to ostracism or social ridicule.

The Center for Autism and Related Disorders, Inc. and the Autism Research Group recently published a study demonstrating that Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) can be used to teach the ability to understand sarcasm.  Teaching children with autism to detect and respond to sarcasm, by Persicke and colleagues is being published in Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders in January 2013 and is available on-line now at http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1750946712000980. The researchers used the Skills® curriculum to teach children with ASD, to respond appropriately to sarcastic statements.

There is a misconception that ABA can’t be used to teach complex skills, particularly complex social skills.  Studies like this one are so exciting because they demonstrate that ABA and the Skills® curriculum can be used to teach so much more than color labels and following simple instructions.  Studies, such as this, also demonstrate how ABA can benefit school-age children, not just toddlers and preschoolers.  Rumor has it that this study, and a similar one demonstrating that children with autism can be taught to understand metaphors, is just the beginning for this team of researchers.  We’ll keep you posted as we learn more about their cutting-edge autism research!