Autism and understanding sarcasm

Stephen McHugh
This post was last updated on
October 26, 2022
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PinSarcasm refers to remarks given by people who mean the opposite of what they said at a particular time. One way this can be done is by paying close attention to, and thinking about the tone of the person’s voice. 

For those of us with autism, this can be very problematic, since we can struggle with understanding how tones in voices can be used by people to modify and convey meanings. We can tend to take things literally too

Furthermore, we can take things personally and be overly sensitive to any sarcastic remarks made to us, which in turn could hurt our feelings.

Having said all of the above, difficulties with sarcasm can harm our confidence when it comes to establishing friendships and relationships with others. One reason for this is because we may not understand when jokes are being told in a group of people.

I would be afraid of using sarcasm in case someone thought I was being serious in what I would say. 

Below are examples of situations where certain phrases that could be used when sarcasm could be involved. They are also there to give you some idea of what to do when trying to identify when sarcasm is being used. When I think about it, I can work out how easy it could be for one to accept them as compliments.

“Well played” or “That was a nice move”

These two phrases may be relevant here if you’re playing in a sporting event where your team is competing against another team.  You may find one of your teammates saying one of the two phrases if you do something that puts your team at a disadvantage or in a difficult situation.  In this situation, the tone in their voices is likely to be indicative of disapproval or annoyance.

“Nice one”

If you know of, let’s say, two people who have done something naughty, and one of them says to the other, “Nice one, looks like you have dropped us right in it.”  Think about it here, it wouldn’t make sense to hear the word nice used in a situation here where the two involved in something naughty may be about to get into trouble.

“Thanks for your help”

If someone comes to you for help with a particular task after you told them you might have been able to help them, you may find that you were unable to successfully help them with their task. They may then say the phrase in a tone that reflects their unhappy mood at you not being able to assist them, especially after you said that you probably could.   

Other suggestions

In a gathering of people which includes one with autism, any person(s) talking sarcastically might not be aware of their autism and the difficulties that they may have in recognising sarcasm as a result. In this case, the solution here might be just to make the people who are talking to be mindful of the person’s difficulties as a result of their autism.

It can also help to have people to point out that someone is only joking about something or to take no notice of what a particular person may be saying to you. 

And finally

As I have managed and evolved with my autism, I have become better at recognising when sarcasm may be involved in a particular conversation. However, there can still be times nowadays when I experience difficulties with it, but less often.

I hope this post has been useful for you. If you’re on the autism spectrum, feel free to share any ways you may have employed in trying to recognise when one is being sarcastic. 

Or if you have a loved one or a friend with autism, let me know of any ways you might have used to help them cope with sarcasm in any social situations.  They may turn out to be useful for other readers of this post, and feel free to share it.

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4 comments on “Autism and understanding sarcasm”

  1. Stephen,
    Thank you for this. As students progress through elementary into middle school, they often have teachers who use sarcasm more frequently. I hate to admit it now, but I am guilty of having used sarcasm often when I taught middle and high school. Thankfully, I see the error of my ways and the laziness of sarcasm as a tool in the classroom.
    As the SpEd coordinator at a new charter school, my role has become more focused on modeling and teaching teachers how to best support students on the spectrum. Use clear and concise directions, frequent check-ins, and have lots of patience are my most common reminders to teachers. Hopefully, teachers will continue to progress in their understanding of students with autism and leave sarcasm by the wayside moving forward.
    I appreciate this post.

    1. Hi Teri, thanks for your kind comment and feedback. It's greatly appreciated. You certainly seem to have the right idea and approach regarding autism and sarcasm. Keep it up and I hope it goes well.

  2. Please see my tweet to you on Twitter @pinknaynay. This is a great article and you possibly saved my marriage. Depending on how you answer, I’d have sent the screenshot but no way to. Please answer the tweet was 1/10/23. Thank you for totally helping me understand!

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