Humor Responses and Social Referencing in Children with ASD: The Role of Social Cognitive Complexity

Friday, May 12, 2017: 5:00 PM-6:30 PM
Golden Gate Ballroom (Marriott Marquis Hotel)
E. F. Ferguson1, J. Brown2, N. Minyanou3, L. Bateman1, Z. M. Dravis2, M. Cola4, A. T. Pomykacz5, A. B. de Marchena6, K. Bartley7, E. S. Kim2, J. Pandey8, R. T. Schultz8 and J. Parish-Morris2, (1)The Center for Autism Research/CHOP, Philadelphia, PA, (2)Center for Autism Research, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, Philadelphia, PA, (3)Center for Autism Research, The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, Philadelphia, PA, (4)The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, Philadelphia, PA, (5)Children's Hospital of Philadelphia- Center for Autism Research, Philadelphia, PA, (6)Center for Autism Research, Philadelphia, PA, (7)Center for Autism Research, Malvern, PA, (8)The Center for Autism Research, The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, Philadelphia, PA
Background: Humor is a universal experience, but some kinds of humor are more complex than others. Slapstick humor and social humor, for example, rely on two different types of cognitive processes and levels of social understanding. Prior research suggests that individuals with ASD may prefer slapstick comedy and simple jokes over humor that hinges on social cognitive inferences about beliefs or feelings (Ricks & Wing, 1975; Samson & Hegenloh, 2009). Additionally, research suggests that audible laughter may be an area of relative social strength for individuals with ASD, as the laughter of children with ASD has been found to be pleasant to naïve raters (Hudenko & Magenheimer, 2011). Given that expressions of positive affect and shared humor experiences can form a foundation for peer friendships, it is important to understand how children with ASD respond to different kinds of humor stimuli.

Objectives: Assess how children with ASD respond to humorous videos that contain different levels of social-cognitive complexity.

Methods: Participants were 43 children (28 male, mean age: 10.46 years; ASD N=20, TDC N=12, non-ASD mixed clinical or first-degree relative with ASD N=11; matched on age and sex ratio). Children watched two short videos that showed: 1) a baby laughing hysterically at a dog chasing bubbles (Figure 1a), and 2) a father giving his baby a lemon wedge to taste for the first time (Figure 1b). Children’s responses were coded for the presence or absence of smiling, laughing or giggling, speaking over the video, and social referencing (i.e., looking at the task administrator during the video to share affect or seek nonverbal information).

Results:   Smiling was the most frequently observed response, with 93% of participants exhibiting at least one smile during the videos. Nearly half of participants engaged in social referencing at least once (49%), while only about 30% laughed out loud or spoke during the video. We examined diagnostic group differences in the two most frequent responses (smiling and social referencing) via repeated measures ANOVA. A three-way interaction emerged between video (Bubbles, Lemon), response (Smiling, Social referencing), and diagnosis [ASD, non-ASD, TDC; F(2,40)=2.97, p=.06; Figure 2]. Planned t-tests revealed that fewer children with ASD smiled during the lemon video than the bubbles video, and more children with ASD engaged in social referencing during the lemon video than the bubbles video (ps<.05).

Conclusions: These preliminary data suggest that when videos depict more social-cognitive complexity, children with ASD smile less and engage in more social referencing. One explanation for this finding is that the lemon video is ambiguous, leading to greater uncertainty in how to respond. Whereas the baby’s laughter in the bubbles video provides a clear clue to the video’s intent, the lemon video requires perspective-taking; the viewer may smile in response to the father’s humorous tone, or sympathize with the baby’s disgust. To understand individual response patterns more fully, we will transcribe children’s verbal descriptions of the videos. Future studies will identify characteristics of the perceiver that predict humor responses to videos with varying levels of social-cognitive complexity.