By: Danette Schotte, M.A.

Many children with special needs have problems with friendships. The problems can surround not understanding nonverbal communication, to not being able to identify emotions, to confusion over humor and more. One thing we know for sure is that a life without friendships and human connections is a very lonely life.  

Humor is something that can bring two people together. Laughter signifies that people are having fun and is good for a healthy relationship. Sharing jokes and funny stories provides a connection between two people.

Children love to laugh. But children with special needs such as autism, ADHD, Sensory Processing Disorder, and more often take things quite literally. This results in them missing a joke or the humor in a situation. If a child can’t share laughter with a group, then she is missing a part of the bonding that occurs and this affects the development of friendships.

Before you can work on humor with your child, you need to understand humor from a developmental perspective. This is a general guideline and actual ages vary depending on the child.

  • By 6 months of age, babies will laugh at behaviors that are not typical of their parents. Making exaggerated faces will get a baby to laugh.
  • A 1 year old baby loves the game of peek-a-boo.

At this stage, you can play peek-a-boo and other games that do not end at a predictable time, such as jack-in-the-box. This can be played with a 4 or 5 year old child with special needs (or even older) if she has not acquired this basic level of humor. There are many different kinds of jack-in-the-boxes, such as Sock Monkey Jack in the Box and SpongeBob Squarepants Jack in the Box, so you should be able to find one that will appeal to your child.

  • Starting at age 1 or 1 ½, children start pretend play and will make believe that an object is something other than what it is or will use it in a “wrong” way. For example, a child may put a sock on his hand and laugh.
  • By age 2 to 3 as language skills develop, children enjoy giving objects the wrong name. “Bathroom” humor may also begin at this time.

For the two stages above, you can create a game to play with your child. Take a box and fill it with familiar objects. Pull something out and pretend it is something else. For example, you can take a sock out of the box and say it is a hat and put it on your head.  After you take a few turns, let your child try.

  • By age 3, children enjoy playing with the sounds of words. They may create variations of common words or generate rhyming words. Some of these children may also enjoy making nonsensical sentences .

Saxton Freymann and Joost Eiffers created a set of books containing photographs of fruits and vegetables depicting emotions, vehicles, and other objects. The pictures can help children with special needs to not only identify moods and emotions, but to also appreciate the silliness of the photographs. The books are titled How Are You Peeling? (bkshelf) (Scholastic Bookshelf), Fast Food, and Food Play.

  • Around age 5, children start telling riddles or knock-knock jokes that don’t make any sense.

What Do You Hear When Cows Sing?: And Other Silly Riddles (I Can Read Book 1) contains twenty two riddles with the use of wordplay.

  • By age 6 or 7, the nonsensical part of the riddles and knock-knock jokes disappear and children find true riddles and knock-knock jokes very humorous.

Good Clean Knock-Knock Jokes for Kids contains a couple hundred jokes.

Knowing the developmental stages of humor is important. When attempting to teach humor to a child with special needs, you need to make sure that you are teaching what is developmentally appropriate and not what is appropriate based on the child’s chronological age. In addition to helping to develop your child’s humor, other benefits will be seen, such as improved eye contact and a fun emotional connection between you and your child.

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