Topical Review Article
The Relation of Humor and Child
Development: Social, Adaptive, and
Margaret Semrud-Clikeman, PhD
, and Kimberly Glass, PhD
A sense of humor has been linked to social competence, popularity, and adaptability. The purpose of this review was to investigate
the extant research in humor in childhood. Emerging work on the neuroanatomy of humor was discussed with findings of right
hemispheric involvement for the comprehension and appreciation of humor for the affective network and the left hemisphere for
cognitive understanding. These findings are intriguing when examining humor functioning in children with various disabilities,
particularly the right hemisphere for children with autistic spectrum disorders or nonverbal learning disabilities. Examination
of research in humor in childhood disabilities found most articles on humor in children with autistic spectrum disorder or
mental retardation, with few to none in learning disabilities or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. It was concluded that
further study is needed to understand humor in children with disabilities and that such understanding will assist with interventions.
humor, child development, developmental disabilities
Received April 1, 2010. Received revised April 26, 2010. Accepted for publication April 26, 2010.
Humor has been characterized as one of the most flexible tools
in social interaction, serving a variety of functions including
enhancing relationships, increasing or maintaining group cohe-
sion, relieving tension, saving face, and expressing aggression
in a socially acceptable way. Humor has been used to probe
intentions or values indirectly, to back down or ‘‘decommit’’
from a previous position, to save face, to ingratiate one’s self,
and to invite interaction. The effective communicator frequently
uses humor to attract or maintain attention, to express views
otherwise difficult to communicate, and to serve as a social
lubricant. In children, humor is inextricably tied to development
and serves a social and developmental purpose. Humor assists in
the growth of social skills for children with developmental
disabilities (ie, dyslexia, mental retardation, autism).
The purpose of this review is 2-fold. The first purpose is to
explore the humor literature to understand the theories of what
humor is, how it develops, and the relation of humor to brain
development. The second purpose is to survey the literature as
to the understanding of humor in various developmental disabil-
ities. It was surprising to find few articles that evaluate the rela-
tion of humor to functioning in different disabled populations,
particularly because it has been tied to social development.
Theories of Humor
The following sections will outline the views that are most
widely accepted as critical and nonexclusive aspects of humor
development. These views include the roles of incongruity and
resolution, cognitive and affective mastery, and social/emo-
tional interaction in humor development. Table 1 provides a
summary of these studies.
Regardless of theoretical framework about the purpose of
humor, most researchers agree that humor is related to either
comprehending or producing an incongruity: the simultaneous
occurrence of incompatible elements or sudden contradiction
Incongruity has been suggested to be the
main definition for humor and is a violation of intention, con-
vention, or fact.
Humor usually involves 2 phases: perception
and identification of an incongruity and reassessment to pro-
duce cohesion or resolve the incongruity. Most researchers
accept this 2-stage model, although the language describing the
model varies (surprise/coherence vs incongruity/ resolution).
Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI, United States
William Stixrud and Associates, Washington, DC, United States
Margaret Semrud-Clikeman, PhD, Michigan State University, 321 A West Fee
Hall, East Lansing, MI 48824
Journal of Child Neurology
ªThe Author(s) 2010
Reprints and permission:
Some researchers assert that resolution is not necessary for
the perception or experience of humor.
For example, slapstick
humor such as gags or practical jokes does not necessarily
involve resolution. This type of humor is considered to be a less
complex form of humor and is common in young children. The
transition from incongruity to incongruity plus resolution
occurs between the ages of 6 and 8 years.
were found to be less able to identify the incongruity critical
to the resolution and would point to a noncritical incongruity,
such as a funny expression. They would then develop a corre-
sponding noncritical resolution such as ‘‘because something’s
wrong with his food.’’ It was proposed that a person enjoys a
joke to the extent that incongruity can be detected and resolved
and that the ability to detect critical incongruities and resolu-
tions increases with development.
In an analysis of frequency of incongruity in children’s
books, Hoicka and Gattis
books for 1- to 2-year-olds. Out of 20 books, 12 were found
to have humor that related to the initial stage of incongru-
ity—understanding something was wrong. Such use of wrong-
ness clothed as humor provides the initial stages of learning the
intent of others. The ability to comprehend the humor portrayed
in these books requires an understanding of what the person has
done as well as understanding the other person’s attitude and
intent. Toddlers were significantly more likely to laugh at the
humorous books than at the nonhumorous books independent
of parental input. No studies were found in a review of the lit-
erature that evaluated the development of humor in toddlers
with disorders such as autistic spectrum disorder or mental
Cognitive and Affective Mastery Theory
In humor development, children find pleasure in mastery. Thus,
they express the greatest pleasure in a humorous stimulus that
is right at the edge of their developmental stage. The cognitive
congruency principle states that a humorous stimulus is less
pleasurable when it is too simple or too complex in relation
to the developmental stage.
For example, the enjoyment of
funny riddles peaks in early elementary years and then declines
as language use becomes more sophisticated. Humor reactions
in younger children are primarily generated by visual or motor
stimuli. Appreciation for verbal and abstract humor increases
with development. This finding was particularly robust across
studies and supports the theory that humor is generated by mas-
tery, first of motor ability followed by language.
The cognitive mastery approach to humor hypothesizes
that infants experience pleasure in assimilating stimuli into
Table 1. Studies of Humor in Nondisabled Children, Adolescents, and Adults
Study Measures used Conclusions
Preschoolers aged 4-5
years (N ¼158)
Temperament, communication development, teacher
rating of humor
Children with normal to above average communication
skills showed more use of humor; activity level,
approachability, and responsivity were linked to
appropriate use of humor
7- to 8-year-old
children (N ¼205)
Sociometric nominations; participation in role plays Number of friendships positively associated with prosocial
skills and humor
19- to 36-month-old
toddlers (N ¼78)
Presented unambiguous jokes and mistakes to the
toddler and coded the child’s reaction
All understood the difference between jokes and mistakes;
only the 25- to 36-month-olds differentiated between
mistakes and jokes with differential laughter
Study 1: analysis of
books aimed at 1- and
Study 1: books examined for children aged 1 to 2 years Found numerous humor aspects including mistakes,
pretense, lying, false beliefs, and metaphors
Study 2 (N ¼20
Parents read books with humorous and nonhumorous
pages to 19- to 26-month-olds
Parents were found to use additional explanations when
reading funny materials
Study 3 (N ¼41
Parent read either a funny or nonfunny book to 18- to
With humorous books that required high abstraction
skills, there were more additional parent explanations than
with nonfunny books
Case study of child
between ages of 15 and
Diary of child’s verbal development particularly with
comprehension of jokes
Development of humor comprehension and use began
with symbolic play and understanding of concepts;
mislabeling of objects to be funny was first, with word
jokes emerging last
Semistructured interviews of children; the child looked
at pictures and answered questions about how funny it
was and what made it funny
Kindergarteners were able to recognize main and/or
minor incongruities in a funny picture and provide
reasoning; no gender differences were found
Adolescents grades 6
to 12 (N ¼552)
Vignettes were presented and were rated for
popularity, likeability, and attractiveness
A sense of humor was rated as a strong aspect of
popularity for both genders
Children grades 4-5
Examined children’s responses to humor in fiction by
observation and interviews
Found that children liked humor related to (1) superiority,
(2) slapstick, (3) scatological and gross references, and (4)
language and word play; it was also found that sharing of
humor was a social process
2Journal of Child Neurology 000(00)
schemas. One of the earliest studies of the relation between an
internalized schema of a human face and external stimuli pre-
sented infants with different representations of the human face
(possibly the earliest perceptual schema).
These infants at 4
months of age smiled most often at the most realistic faces
(photographs and sculptures). By 13 months, the most smiles
were obtained in response to major distortions of human form
(3-headed man), indicating the full grasp of this schema. These
early experiences of pleasure appear to develop into humor
when children begin to engage in representational thinking,
around 18 months.
Only when children develop a stable understanding of the
‘‘real world’’ and are able to distinguish between fantasy and
reality (at approximately 4 years of age) can they truly experi-
ence the violation of expectation, which then leads to humor.
One aspect that develops over time is also related to theory
of mind—or the ability to take another person’s perspective.
Initially, young children understand that other people can have
an intention to accomplish a task or action. During this period
of time, these children learn to differentiate between intentional
and accidental actions.
At approximately 25 to 36 months,
children begin to understand that another person can intend
to do a wrong action or say something incorrectly. Soon after
that point, a child begins to understand that a person can pre-
tend to accomplish a task.
Finally, by 4 years of age, a child
is able to understand the difference between a lie and a joke.
Coupled with the ability to distinguish lying and joking is the
understanding that one person does not know what another
For children with autism or mental retardation, such
abilities develop at a later age or in a different manner.
asserts that humor is both a cognitive process and an
affective experience. In order for incongruity to generate
humor rather than fear, confusion, or perplexity, the incongru-
ity must be placed within a playful framework. This playful
framework is constructed through communicative signals indi-
cating playful intent. Although in adult humor these cues are
very subtle, for children, the cues must be more obvious. Early
dyadic social exchanges prime children to develop a ‘‘social
intelligence’’ that allows them to identify and understand con-
textual cues of intent. In addition to a playful framework, the
participant in humor must engage in an ‘‘emotional compli-
city.’’ Early humorous interactions contribute to the develop-
ment of emotional complicity and ultimately to the
development of empathy. Thus, for a person to engage in emo-
tional complicity, she or he must share the humorist’s intention
to fully enjoy the humorous stimuli.
Humor appreciation and engagement develop over time in the
child. Initially, humor is seen when an infant elicits laughter
from caregivers and then repeats that action again to generate
the same type of attention. In children aged 18 months to 3
years, appreciation of cartoons is present as well as enjoyment
of slapstick and using objects in an unusual manner. Humor
then generally moves into puns and riddles and then, as the
child ages, into more subtle and complex forms. One aspect
in humor development is in the growth of cognitive abilities
Cognitive Development and Humor
Children become increasingly more capable of enjoying and
producing a wider variety of humor as they integrate increas-
ingly richer knowledge and more complex cognitive mechan-
isms. Incongruity is frequently the basis for a humorous
situation or statement. Such incongruity recognizes that a
humorous error is intentional and that the error is designed to
entertain. Children as young as 25 months have been found
to understand an incongruous situation and that the person
intended to do the wrong thing.
Such ability has been found
to precede understanding of pretending or lying.
Using a Piagetian theoretical framework, McGhee
posed a 4-stage theory for the development of appreciation of
humor in children. These stages are based on the child’s devel-
oping ability to recognize and produce cognitive incongruity.
The first stage is the ability to pretend to play with objects and
begins to emerge at approximately at age 2 years. During this
stage, the child plays with objects in such a way as is incongru-
ous with the usual use of the objects, resulting in laughter (ie,
putting a banana on one’s head as a hat).
In the second stage, the child begins to learn to replace
actions with words. This development is then related to the
child’s ability to manipulate the relationship between
words—to engage in wordplay. At this point in time, the child
becomes involved in pretend play that uses language. For the
third stage, the child can categorize objects and events. Humor
emerges at this stage when the child alters an object or event
and notices when things are not as they should be (ie, a man
taking a bath fully clothed). This stage emerges around 4 to 5
years of age.
Finally, in the fourth stage, the child develops
the ability to restructure events and objects to suit himself or
herself. In this stage, around age 7 years, the child can play with
words in the forms of riddles and puns.
found a significant relationship between mental
rotation, which involves visual-spatial imagery, and humor
processing in adults. One clear developmental trend is that
younger children predominantly respond to and produce humor
involving motor stimuli and that this humor becomes increas-
ingly more verbal as children develop.
Before verbal humor,
children first appreciate the incongruities in nonlinguistic con-
texts such as funny faces or slapstick actions.
forms of humor require visual-spatial or tactile perceptual abil-
ities. As illustrated in previous sections, early visual-spatial
deficits are thought to interfere with early dyadic reciprocity,
which in turn leads to poor social competence. It is unclear how
Semrud-Clikeman and Glass 3
much the comprehension of earlier forms of humor predisposes
or builds one’s ability to perceive and use humor or what effect
this deficit will have on later social functioning.
added the playful framework to the incongruity-
resolution model of humor. He asserted that for an incongruity
to be funny rather than disgruntling, startling, or even scary,
there must be cues that place the incongruity in a playful or safe
framework. The younger the child, the more obvious these cues
must be. The cues are more necessary for younger children who
often display a relatively uncertain understanding of reality.
The cues indicate that the behavior is not a mistake or a bizarre
rule to be incorporated. For example, when adults play ‘‘I’m
gonna git ya’’ games with infants, they use exaggerated faces
and voices and often proceed in slow motion, especially when
they are unfamiliar to the infant. These exaggerated cues
become subtler as the child develops his or her ability to read
the context, and for adults, the cues are almost nonexistent in
A mutual complicity or sharing of the playful intent is
necessary for the experience of humor, adding an affective
component to the cognitive explanation. One question not well
understood is the effect of early humor delays and related dif-
ficulties in social interaction on later adjustment and humor
development. Problems in facial recognition and processing
and correctly labeling affect, difficulty with prosody, and poor
development of empathy are among the several examples of
deficits that could interfere with perception of the playful
framework and the engagement in emotional complicity neces-
sary to experience humor.
Development of Verbal Humor
Initially, children’s humor depends on the context of the riddle
or joke rather than on language.
Young children often cannot
identify the critical element in a riddle or joke that renders it
funny. At around the age of 10 to 11 years, children begin to
focus on the language in processing humor. A critical review
found that children do not begin joking in reference to speech
patterns until ages 3 to 4 years, when they have achieved a high
mastery of language.
Generally, verbal play begins in chil-
dren by age 3 years and silly rhyming by age 4 years. Age 6
years heralds the beginning of premade jokes, which signifies
mastery of language that begins to approach an adult level. It
was found that children in early elementary school grades tell
riddles based primarily on semantic classifications or multiple
meanings of words. By the end of elementary school, around
age 11 years, the riddles reflect children’s growing understand-
ing of language as a system.
Studies have linked communication competence and
temperament as important in humor development.
developing preschoolers were administered measures of tem-
perament and communication, and their teachers rated them
on 3 components of humor: (1) frequency of laughter in social
situations, (2) verbal attempts at initiating humor, and (3) beha-
vioral initiation of humor. Temperament style was found to
relate significantly to humor, particularly in the areas of activ-
ity and approach, with greater responsivity strongly related to
frequency of laughter and behavioral initiation of humor.
Riddles. One important type of humor involves riddles.
Appreciation of riddles changes with age. Preriddles are gener-
ally thought to develop first. In this stage, the child is thought to
have developed a riddle format, but responses are arbitrary
(nonhumorous non sequiturs) and are told and appreciated by
first and second graders.
This early type of humor incorpo-
rates crude incongruency but offers no resolution and, thus, is
not funny to adults.
Example: Knock, knock.
Orange banana head.
Between the ages of 6 and 8 years, children are able to compre-
hend the first type of true riddle structure, phonological riddles.
These riddles are dependent on the specific sound changes
resulting in a change in meaning. This developmental stage sig-
nals a full mastery of phonetics. Studies of children with learn-
ing disabilities have suggested that these types of riddles are
most difficult for this population.
If one assumes that the
majority of these children have reading disorders, the difficul-
ties found are logical extensions of the poor reading and pre-
reading skills of this group. Difficulty with this type of riddle
but not with more sophisticated levels in a child with a reading
disability strengthens the hypothesized link between reading
skills and problems with phonological riddles.
Example: When do astronauts eat?
At launch time.
Lexical riddles are based on dual word meanings and are the main
form of riddle told by third or fourth graders (ages 8-10 years). In
this type of riddle, the resolution is dependent on making the cog-
nitive shift to reinterpret the key word. The following example
requires a reinterpretation of the word flies to refer to baseball
rather than the more commonly applied referent, the insect.
Example: What has 18 legs and catches flies?
A baseball team.
Riddles with complex cognitive incongruities are told by the
upper elementary and middle school grades (ages 10-14 years).
In these riddles, the humor is derived from an illogical resolution.
Thus, the resolution is the realization of violated expectations.
Example: What did the newscaster say after he announced that
the world had come to an end?
Answer: Stay tuned. News at 11.
4Journal of Child Neurology 000(00)
Many authors divide the cognitive incongruencies further into
specific linguistic incongruities such as surface structure, deep
structure, and metalinguistic structure. There are no develop-
mental distinctions between these types of riddles as all are
thought to develop between the ages of 10 and 14 years.
Language Development and Humor
‘‘To understand humor, the listener must disregard the literal
interpretation of an utterance and go beyond it to derive mean-
ing from what is not explicitly stated.’’
The linguistic aspects
of humor contain incongruity, resolution, and emotional com-
plicity. The source of verbal humor involves multiple meanings
of words, metaphors, idioms, detecting ambiguity, and appre-
ciating the unexpected or a sudden shift in perspective. In using
and understanding figurative language, a person must first
recognize the discrepancy between the figurative words and the
This discrepancy constitutes the incongruency
aspect of humor. Second, the listener must identify the commu-
nicative purpose, a social cognitive task. For humor that is
more subtle or complex, a child with learning or language prob-
lems will be unable to appreciate the material in a manner sim-
ilar to that of his peers.
Social Competence and Humor
Several researchers have tied humor to social competence
under the general categories of divergent thinking and social
comprehension or through the connection specifically between
humor and intelligence and motivation and peer relation-
Humor production, comprehension, and mirth have
been found to be positively related to academic and social com-
petence, with cognitive abilities accounting for most of the
It is likely that that social awareness or ‘‘social cog-
nition’’ mediates humor and overall social competence.
Although humor was not found to contribute directly to aca-
demic competence, mirth was significantly related to intelli-
gence and performance anxiety even when other factors were
From this study, it was concluded that intellectual
ability or motivation towards mastery mediates humor and
competence. It was also found that social competence and
humor are positively related and bidirectional, each influencing
the other. These findings are important for understanding the
role that humor plays in the adaptation of children with and
Studies of popularity and humor have found that a sense of
humor is considered an important aspect in likeability of
Similar studies in middle childhood have
found that successful peer acceptance is related to the quality of
interactions and prosocial behaviors such as strong communi-
cation skills and a good sense of humor.
with a positive sense of humor were found to have more friend-
ships than did those without a strong sense of humor.
Bullying and humor. Studies have also examined the relation
of humor style and peer acceptance or victimization/bullying.
Bullying was classified as either direct or indirect. Direct
bullying is targeting an individual and taking overt action,
whereas indirect bullying is manipulating the group to victi-
mize a target. Two types of humor are generally used by bul-
lies: affiliative and aggressive. Affiliative humor is a type of
humor that is enjoyable, pleasant, and adaptive. It is most often
used by popular children to achieve cohesiveness of a group.
Peer-accepted children use affiliative humor to facilitate group
harmony, whereas indirect bullying uses this type of humor to
harass and ostracize other children from the group. Bullies who
use affiliative humor are adept at social skills and use this type
of humor to cement relationships in the group with an ‘‘us ver-
sus them’’ approach. Inside jokes that only the members of the
clique understand are used to further alienate by emphasizing
their increasing social distance from the clique. An indirect
bully also uses humor to emphasize his or her importance in the
group and to gain additional respect from peers.
Aggressive humor also is used for peer victimization.
Aggressive humor is humor that belittles or denigrates another
person. For indirect bullies, aggressive humor excludes
rejected children by spreading rumors but in a way that does
not exceed the social mores of the group.
For direct bullies,
aggressive humor overtly pokes fun at the victim and demeans
him or her in an open forum. Some children who have been vic-
timized use negative, self-defeating humor to make others
laugh or to feel part of a social group. These children have,
at times, been classified as the class clown.
Thus, humor develops in conjunction with cognitive, social,
perception, and language skills. A good sense of humor has
been linked to popularity, prosocial skills, and social standing.
The 2 components of humor include cognitive and affective
aspects. Each of these components activates different brain
structures and neural networks.
A key finding in investigating
neuroanatomy and humor is the role of the right hemisphere for
understanding and enjoying humor.
Anatomical Specificity of Humor in the Right Hemisphere
The study of humor has begun to move from behavioral and
psychological exploration to neuroimaging. The relation of
humor to right hemispheric functioning has been suggested for
adults and for children.
Studies have used structural and
functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to evaluate key
areas of the brain. Functional MRI is a particularly useful tool
as brain activation can be examined as the participant is view-
ing or listening to humorous stimuli. There are currently no
published studies evaluating functional MRI and humor in chil-
dren or adolescents. The data that are present have been
obtained from adults with and without brain damage. For
adults, the main brain regions that have been identified in
humor involve the left hemisphere for language functions and
the right hemisphere for integration of cognitive and affective
Specific brain regions that have been implicated
include the frontal lobes (particularly the right frontal lobe),
hippocampus, temporal lobe and limbic system, amygdala,
and cerebellum. These authors concluded that ‘‘the ability
Semrud-Clikeman and Glass 5
of the right frontal lobe may be unique in integrating cognitive
and affective information, an integration relevant for other
complex human abilities, such as episodic memory and self-
Patients with right hemisphere damage have been found to
experience significant problems with humor.
are able to recognize a joke but experience problems with
understanding the meaning of the joke, possibly due to deficits
in theory of mind or in complex linguistic abilities.
deficits in adults with right hemisphere damage are suggested
to develop as a result of damage to several component skills.
One study researched humor appreciation with greater anato-
mical specificity by studying adults with an acquired single
focal brain lesion restricted to an identified brain region.
patients were divided into right frontal, left frontal, bifrontal,
right posterior, and left posterior and compared to matched
controls. These groups were compared on the following tasks:
verbal humor appreciation task, joke and story completion task,
and nonverbal cartoon appreciation task. They found that the
patients with right frontal and bifrontal lesions had difficulty
on all 3 humor tasks, the left frontal and right posterior groups
were only impaired on the nonverbal cartoon task, and the left
posterior group showed no impairments. Specifically, the
patients with frontal lesions had diminished emotional
responses and were less able to choose correct joke endings.
In correlating performances across tasks, the authors found that
the verbal tasks were correlated with measures of mental shift-
ing, verbal abstraction, and working memory, and the cartoon
task was correlated with measures of visual scanning and work-
The findings from this study were interpreted as support for
the hypothesis that the right frontal lobe is primarily responsi-
ble for indirect interpretation and organizing and integrating
information. The potential role of episodic memory retrieval
for humor appreciation was also found, perhaps indicating that
humor appreciation depends on the interpretation of the stimuli
in the light of past experience. In interpolating these results to
shed light on the role of the right hemisphere in the develop-
ment of humor, it must be noted that this study used adults who
had acquired injuries; one must speculate as to the significance
of these results when considering the more diffuse functioning
of the developing brain.
A further examination of these finding used impairment on
the verbal humor tasks as an independent measure and related
these results to location of lesions. It was found that the most
impaired patients had lesions involving the right frontal ante-
rior, superior area, particularly areas 8 and 9.
had no problem in choosing logical endings to complete a story
but chose predominantly non sequitur endings for the joke
completion task, demonstrating a deficit in the coherence stage
of humor appreciation and comprehension.
Comprehension of figurative language involves a dynamic
interplay between bottom-up, memory-based, semantic activa-
tion of word meaning and top-down pragmatic constraints of
The right hemisphere activates more slowly,
more broadly, and for a longer period of time. This slow
activation likely results in a right hemispheric advantage in
retrieving subtle and/or indirect word meanings as are found
in metaphors and humor. The rapid and serial processing retrie-
val style of the left hemisphere limits individuals with right
hemisphere damage to a literal interpretation of words and
The second dynamic contributing to difficulty in humor
understanding for patients with right hemisphere damage is the
top-down processing of the pragmatic information inherent in a
social context. It seems that the right hemisphere has a distinct
advantage in processing the cues that reveal the intent of the
It is important to note that right hemisphere
damage patients could explain the context and the figurative
language. For example, they could explain the difference
between a lie as intended deceit and humor, and they could
explain metaphors when pushed to do so. This ability indicates
that they have the appropriate skills but that they do not ‘‘know
when to know’’ and suggests a combination of the rapid and
inflexible response style and inability to adequately process
context in the left hemisphere.
Brain activation for humorous stimuli has been
demonstrated to differ depending on the type of humor used.
Incongruity was found to relate to the bilateral temporal
lobe network, whereas puns and riddles activated the speech
production regions of the frontal lobe. In addition, these authors
found a separate and distinct network for affective humor in the
medial ventral prefrontal cortex and bilateral cerebellum.
Moreover, the cognitive aspect of humor was found to be
related to the ability to shift mentally and understand the mean-
ing of the joke. Thus, one can understand the meaning of the
joke with relatively normal brain activation in the left hemi-
sphere (often found in people with autistic spectrum disorders)
but not find the joke funny, a skill requiring an intact right
Various clinical populations differ in their abilities to
appreciate humor. The right hemisphere has been implicated
in the neuropsychological and social functioning of children
with autism or nonverbal learning disabilities. Right hemi-
spheric involvement has also been found in children with atten-
tion deficit hyperactivity disorder. Humor research with these
children has found areas of deficit that are consistent with the
problems seen in these populations. The following section
briefly details the current studies that are present in children
with chronic medical conditions, verbal and nonverbal learning
disabilities, autistic spectrum disorders, and attention deficit
Humor in Specific Populations
There are no studies that have evaluated humor using neuroima-
ging for either typically developing or disabled children or ado-
lescents. The studies that have been conducted with children
with developmental or chronic medical conditions are generally
behavioral in nature and few in number. Table 2 provides
information about the various studies for each diagnosis.
6Journal of Child Neurology 000(00)
Chronic Medical Conditions
Humor has been linked to well-being and enhanced immune
functioning as well as reducing cardiovascular risk.
of humor used has also been found to be related to coping with
physical illness in adults. Adaptive self-enhancing humor was
found to be significantly associated with coping with an illness,
whereas maladaptive aggressive humor was linked to more
negative affect and an inability to change perspective to deal
with the problems at hand.
In addition, higher levels of neg-
ative affect were found to be associated with a greater number
of physical symptoms and a greater worry about illness. Thus,
in this study, negative affect significantly predicted illness atti-
tude and number of physical symptoms, whereas humor style
was highly predictive of coping strategies. Similar studies have
not been conducted with children to evaluate type of humor
used and coping with physical illness.
A literature search found only 1 study of humor and serious
illness. Twenty-three children with cancer aged 5 to 10 years
and 23 well children were compared on several measures
including cognitive development, adjustment, and humor.
No significant differences were found between the groups on
adjustment variables or on vocabulary development. The ill
group showed poorer scores on arithmetic and spelling skills,
but all were within the average range. On the humor test, older
children scored higher than did younger children, and well chil-
dren scored higher than did ill children (P< .05). When com-
prehension of the cartoons was studied, ill children were found
to rate a cartoon as funny even if they did not understand the
cartoon more often than did well children. These findings sug-
gest that humor was less affected in older children with cancer
than in younger children. Humor can be a coping mechanism
for adapting to a difficult situation. It is not clear from this
study whether the older children were diagnosed at an older age
or had had treatment for a longer period of time.
Children With Learning Disabilities
A few studies have found support for poorer humor compre-
hension and appreciation in learning disabled populations, but
these studies did not differentiate between different subtypes of
learning disability or between learning disability and mental
The one study that used only children with
learning disabilities found that learning disabilities were asso-
ciated with a lag in the ability to comprehend and appreciate the
Children who were 8 or 12 years old with learning
disabilities showed similar appreciation of humor, whereas for
nonhandicapped children there was a significant age differ-
ence. Similarly, studies that combined children with a learning
disability and mild mental retardation found that compared to
typically developing children, there was poorer comprehension
of riddles particularly when phonological cues were used.
In general, children with a learning disability responded to
humorous stimuli with less comprehension and did not differ-
entiate between funny and nonfunny stimuli in their display
of mirth. Thus, because children with a learning disability do
not accurately distinguish humorous or nonhumorous material,
they watch how others respond to humorous materials and join
in the laughter even though they do not understand the joke.
One unexplored question is whether humor difficulties in the
learning disabled population represent a deficit or a delay.
Down’s Syndrome and Mental Retardation
The most frequently studied population with intellectual dis-
ability and humor is the Down’s syndrome population. Com-
pared to other types of intellectual disability, children with
Down’s syndrome have been found to laugh and enjoy humor-
ous exchanges more than do those with other types of mental
Children with Down’s syndrome have been
reported to show particular interest in other people’s emotional
responses and have a tendency to clown around.
mental pattern for humor enjoyment for children with Down’s
syndrome has been found to parallel that of typically develop-
ing infants, with physical humor enjoyed more than verbal.
For infants with Down’s syndrome, the incidence of smiling
is seen more often than laughing.
To study whether children with Down’s syndrome or aut-
ism are more likely to share in laughter or humorous interac-
tions with others, Reddy et al
conducted parental interviews,
observations of free play, and psychometric testing in a sam-
ple of preschool children with either a diagnosis of Down’s
syndrome or autism that were matched by nonverbal mental
age. Findings indicated no significant group differences in
overall frequency of laughter or laughter during interactive
games such as peek-a-boo, tickling, or slapstick. In the autism
group, laughter was rare in reaction to funny faces or socially
inappropriate acts. The children with autism also did not
engage with the other children either through laughter or
through silly behaviors. These differences were not related
to developmental level but rather to diagnosis. In contrast, the
children with Down’s syndrome were found to share in atten-
tion, smiling, and silly behaviors.
This study produced 2 significant findings. First, the
children with autism showed similar amounts of laughter and
smiling compared to the children with Down’s syndrome, indi-
cating emotional reactivity in these children, although less than
would be seen in typically developing children. Second, the
children with autism responded differently in their abilities to
interpret incongruity, a necessary step for later appreciation
of complex humor. This finding is also important as it under-
scores the difficulty children with autism have when humor
requires joint attention or when it requires social responsivity.
One study of mental retardation and humor suggests that
delays in humor understanding are proportionate to cognitive
ability and increase over time, although the scores remain
delayed when assessed normatively.
Another study compared
children with Down’s syndrome or autism using videotapes of
interactions with the children’s mothers in the home over the
course of a year.
The videotapes were coded for humor
episodes as defined by the child laughing. The children with
autism produced significantly less humor overall, particularly
Semrud-Clikeman and Glass 7
Table 2. Results of Studies of Humor in Special Populations
Diagnosis Subjects Measures Findings
Cancer and matched health controls
Children aged 5 -10
years (N ¼46)
Wide Range Achievement Test; Peabody Picture
Vocabulary Test; Children’s Mirth Response Test
Children with cancer found to score lower on cognitive
measures and to rate a cartoon funny even when not
understanding the joke
students (N ¼105)
Humor Styles Questionnaire (assesses adaptive and
maladaptive humor styles); an inventory of physical
symptoms; Illness Attitude Scale; Health Symptoms
Adaptive self-enhancing humor associated with coping
strategies; maladaptive aggressive humor linked to
dysfunctional coping including denial and an inability to
consider other aspects
15 adults with mild intellectual disability;
15 adults with moderate intellectual
Adults (N ¼30) Subjects were asked to rate 12 cartoon riddles of
6 levels of difficulty for funniness
These adults rated the visual aspects of the jokes funny rather
than the auditory aspects; subjects were found to fail to
understand the cartoon’s intended humor, generally due to
problems with visual incongruity or logical explanations
(IQ < 70)
Children aged 5 to 7
years (N ¼27)
Knox Preschool Play Scale; Ferland Assessment of Ludic
Ludic elements of curiosity, initiative, pleasure, and
spontaneity present independent of IQ level; sense of
humor and enjoyment not evident
Autism and Down’s syndrome
19 with autism; 16 with Down’s
Semistructured parent interview; parent questionnaire
about language production; Bayley Scales of Infant
Development; Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scale; free
play with parent; free play with toys without the
No group differences in frequency of laughter for tickling,
playing peek-a-boo, or slapstick; for the autism group,
laughter was rarer for funny faces of socially inappropriate
acts and more frequent for strange or unusual occurrences
compared to the Down’s syndrome group; children with
autism rarely joined others’ laughter or tried to re-elicit
laughter by copying an action; autism group showed less
evidence of attention or smiles to others’ laughter and higher
incidences of unshared laughter
6 children with autism; 6 children with
Children aged 3-7 years
Observation of play with mother in the home setting twice
monthly for hour intervals over 1 year
Children with autism showed less humor overall as well as
less humor with visual incongruity; children with Down’s
syndrome told jokes, and children with autism did not
Learning disabilities and intellectual
6 children with learning disabilities or
mild intellectual disability or controls in
each group (aged 7-10, 10-13, and 13-16
years); number of children with learning
disabilities or intellectual disabilities not
Children aged 7-16
years (N ¼54)
First task: 12 riddles presented with 4 in each
category: phonologically funny, semantically funny,
cognitive incongruity; second task: provide joke
explanations; third task: tell a joke
Controls scored higher on phonological jokes compared to
the children with learning or intellectual disabilities; no
difference present on the other types; older children with
intellectual disabilities and controls selected more correct
endings for a joke than did older children with learning
Controls gave best explanation of the humor in the joke;
children with intellectual disabilities could not verbalize
source of humor; children with learning disabilities were
most variable in explaining the joke, particularly with the
Fewer children with intellectual disabilities could tell jokes;
controls told more phonological jokes, learning disabilities
Table 2 (continued)
Diagnosis Subjects Measures Findings
Control children in grades 2 and 4
(n ¼41); learning disabilities (14 fourth
graders); intellectual disabilities
(12 fourth graders)
Children in 2 age
groups: second grade
and fourth grade
Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test–Revised; Kaufman
Assessment Battery for Children, Revised; humor test
IQ used as a covariate; control fourth graders understood
more cartoons than did control second graders; children
with learning or intellectual disabilities performed signifi-
cantly poorer than did both control groups; all control chil-
dren and children with learning disabilities understood
differences between funny and not funny cartoons; children
with intellectual disabilities did not
Autism spectrum disorder
Adults with high-functioning autism (5
women; 11 men)
Adults (N ¼16) Participated in social skills training for several years;
sociogram and questionnaire were administered
Attractiveness and a sense of humor were positively and
significantly correlated with popularity
Adults with high-functioning autism aged
16-57 years; controls aged 16-45 years
Adults (N ¼38) Four subtests from WAIS-R, presented 10 short story jokes
and provided 5 possible endings for each joke; each subject
was read 20 items with 2 sentences; subjects asked true or
false questions about the sentences
Subjects with autism performed significantly worse on all
measures compared to controls
20 children with autism spectrum disor-
; 2 groups of control children (20
in each group): first control group
matched by gender and CA, and second
group matched by MA
Children aged 4-15
Categorize faces as sad/not sad or happy/not happy;
presented with 6 human faces, 6 cartoon faces, and
6 nonhuman faces depicting sad, happy, or angry
expressions; stimuli were presented in upright and
Children with autism spectrum disorders processed emo-
tional expressions as well as did controls; controls used
configural strategies for understanding the emotion, whereas
children with autism spectrum disorders used this only for
cartoons; for human faces, children with autism spectrum
disorders had more difficulty understanding the face
compared to both control groups
Controls: 15 children at age 8 years and
15 at age 12 years; learning disabled: 15
at age 8 years and 15 at age 12 years
Children aged 8 and 12
Cartoons were presented with 2 versions of each cartoon:
the first version was the original, and the second had the
incongruity removed; the children were observed as to how
much laughter was evoked and then asked to choose on a
Likert scale as to how funny the cartoon was
The 8-year-old subjects with learning disabilities showed the
lowest mirth responses and identified the fewest incongrui-
ties; both older groups identified more incongruities and
comprehended the humor better than did both younger
groups; both learning disabled groups invented a reason
some of the cartoons not seen as funny by the controls to be
funny; the results were interpreted that the children with
learning disabilities tended to pretend that a joke was funny
because they thought that was what was expected
Nonverbal learning disabilities
Nonverbal learning disabilities
(n ¼20); verbal learning disabilities
(n ¼15); control group (n ¼20)
Children aged 12-15
Children were presented with verbal jokes and cartoons
with captions: for the joke portion, joke stems were
provided with 3 endings from which the child would
choose the funniest one; for the cartoon task, the
child saw 3 panels and was asked to choose the
funniest ending from 3 choices
No group differences were found between the nonverbal
learning disability, learning disability, or control groups; when
the nonverbal learning disabilities group was divided into
children with and without social comprehension difficulties,
group differences were present: the nonverbal learning dis-
abilities group with social problems performed worse than
did the other groups and the nonverbal learning disabilities
group without social problems; it was concluded that a subset
of children with nonverbal learning disabilities who have
accompanying social skills deficits have significant problems
with humor comprehension, and such difficulty may serve to
isolate them further from their peers
CA, chronological age; IQ, intelligence quotient; MA, mental age; WAIS-R, Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (4th ed.).
in the area of nonverbal incongruity, compared to the children
with Down’s syndrome. Similarly, the children with Down’s
syndrome engaged in more episodes of verbal and nonverbal
incongruity and produced the only jokes noted in the interac-
tions. The group differences were wider at the older ages, sug-
gesting that in autism, the problems with humor represent a
deficit rather than a delay.
Autistic Spectrum Disorders
Autistic spectrum disorders are neurodevelopmental disorders
primarily diagnosed through behavioral symptoms.
the autistic spectrum disorder classification are 2 main diag-
noses: autism and Asperger syndrome. It is believed that chil-
dren with autistic spectrum disorder experience problems with
humor appreciation and comprehension due to problems with
language, particularly in pragmatic language skills and in per-
spective taking (theory of mind). In a comprehensive review of
the autism literature, Lyons and Fitzgerald
found that deficits
in linguistic abilities, pragmatic language, theory of mind,
executive functions, episodic memory, self-awareness, and
abstract reasoning are related to the difficulty that people with
autistic spectrum disorder have with humor. Some have
suggested that very gifted individuals with autistic spectrum
disorder appreciate philosophical or mathematical humor, par-
ticularly when the joke violates the ‘‘correct’’ pattern for the
The humor that is enjoyed by these patients centers
mostly around obsessive topics and not with the intention of
sharing humor with others.
In these cases, the humor is
described as being of a cognitive nature and learned rather than
being for sharing interactions with others.
There is emerging functional MRI evidence that cognitive
and affective humor processing is the result of differential
neural involvement with the right hemisphere implicated for
humor and a more left hemispheric component for cognitive
Neurologically, Asperger syndrome has been
associated with right hemispheric dysfunction,
autism has been hypothesized to be related to left and right
Right hemispheric dysfunction
has been implicated in humor (see preceding section), and in
children with autistic spectrum disorder, such dysfunction
lends itself to problems with humor comprehension. The fol-
lowing studies have directly evaluated humor in children and
adolescents with autistic spectrum disorder.
One study compared nonretarded adults with autism to
controls on measures of pragmatic language sensitive to right
hemispheric damage as well as on measures of humor compre-
It was found that the autism group performed more
poorly on understanding of jokes and funny stories, with the
jokes being significantly more difficult than the stories. The
autism group had more errors on jokes that contained non
sequitur errors. The difficulty appeared to be related to prob-
lems in integrating 2 sentences that are different and being able
to modify the understanding once new material is presented. A
further study of humor in high-functioning adults with autism
found that when required to tell a joke, the patients with autism
chose to tell riddles (ie, What can you always count on? Your
fingers.) or preriddles (How can you find your way back some-
where? Walking backward or looking back.).
A further study
of popularity among adults with autism found that a sense of
humor as well as perceived attractiveness were related to popu-
In addition, a sense of humor and physical attractive-
ness were also significantly related to the social impact the
person had on others in the group as well as the number of pos-
itive attributes ascribed to that individual.
Cartoons and autistic spectrum disorder. Children with autism
have difficulty with faces, and event-related potential studies
have found distinctive patterns for familiar and unfamiliar
objects in children with autism that are not found in these chil-
dren for familiar and unfamiliar faces.
In contrast, individuals
with autistic spectrum disorder have been found to not differ
from healthy controls for cartoon-face processing.
maging study of a child with autism found no brain activation
in the fusiform face area for human faces but did show activa-
tion for cartoon faces.
These findings are consistent with a
study by Rosset et al,
which used real faces and human and
nonhuman cartoon faces with children with autistic spectrum
disorder and 2 groups of typically developing children. One
of the typically developing groups was individually matched
to the autistic participants on gender and chronological age; the
second group was matched on gender and mental age. Findings
indicated that although all groups processed emotional expres-
sions accurately, the autism group experienced more difficulty
with inverted human faces compared to human and nonhuman
cartoon faces. For the controls, more difficulty was found on
the inverted faces in all categories. These findings suggest that
the children with autism were processing the cartoon faces dif-
ferently than the human faces. This study concluded that chil-
dren with autism do not develop cortical face specialization or
expertise for processing human faces because of reduced inter-
est in faces from an early age. Thus, the anatomical neural sys-
tem that processes faces is not stimulated in these children and
thus does not develop as expected.
In contrast, children with
autism are more ‘‘comfortable’’ processing cartoons and thus
have more experience with these stimuli, hence, the better
established fusiform face gyrus connections.
Nonverbal Learning Disabilities
A nonverbal learning disability is generally defined as diffi-
culty processing information that is nonverbal in nature. These
children generally have relatively high verbal ability with poor
visual-spatial skills, problems with abstract reasoning, and
social skill deficits.
Moreover, difficulties with interpretation
of facial expression, gestures, and/or body language also relate
to problems with humor processing and have been related to
right hemispheric dysfunction.
In addition, they are also
reported to have significant problems understanding humor in
part because of a difficulty with interpretation of multiple
meanings of words and a tendency to be literal in conceptuali-
zation. The use of subtle verbal humor or plays on words would
10 Journal of Child Neurology 000(00)
often preclude children with nonverbal learning disabilities
from using their verbal abilities to assist in their grasp of
humor. Difficulty in perceiving and communicating emotional
prosody is also partially related to the difficulties in humor.
Sarcastic and teasing statements are often taken literally
because these children do not get the nonverbal messages of
humor conveyed by context and tone.
Although several researchers have related humor deficits to
the social skills problems seen in children with nonverbal learn-
there is only 1 study that directly examined
humor difficulties in these children.
In that study, children with
nonverbal learning disabilities were compared to those who were
typically developing on a measure of humor comprehension. No
group differences were found in humor comprehension when a
nonverbal learning disability was solely defined by visual-
spatial deficits. However, when the nonverbal learning disability
group was divided into those with accompanying social compre-
hension deficits and those without, the nonverbal learning dis-
ability group with social problems experienced significant
problems with humor comprehension.
There are no studies specifically looking at humor and attention
deficit hyperactivity disorder. However, Brodzinsky
studied children with different sets of conceptual tempos:
fast/slow tempo and accurate/inaccurate responses. A fast
tempo/inaccurate response style corresponds to attention defi-
cit hyperactivity disorder/hyperactive/impulsive type, whereas
a slow and accurate style is consistent with the attention deficit
hyperactivity disorder/inattentive type, although this attribu-
tion is less clearly defined. Similar to the findings for learning
disability children, Brodzinsky generally found lower compre-
hension and higher mirth for the fast/inaccurate group, indicat-
ing a ‘‘this is a joke’’ mindset.
It seems likely that any
difficulties in humor comprehension by children with attention
deficit hyperactivity disorder are due to a slight delay in emo-
tional maturity and disinhibition, which lessens the attention to
the humor and thus lowers comprehension.
There is a considerable overlap between some characteris-
tics of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and nonverbal
learning disability. Voeller
found that most of their children
with profiles of developmental right hemisphere syndrome had
concurrent attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. She did not
differentiate between attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
subtypes, but the described slowness in routine performance
suggests predominantly inattentive type. This overlap is an area
for further research.
There is a strong connection between the appropriate compre-
hension and appreciation of humor and social competence.
This connection has long been intuitive and is validated both
through examination of the social functions of humor and
through the development of humor in children. Humor devel-
opment in children is inextricably linked to their cognitive,
perceptual, and linguistic development. Emerging neuroima-
ging findings indicate 2 separate components of humor: cogni-
tive and affective. The cognitive appreciation of humor
generally involves the left inferior prefrontal cortex and insula,
regions important for the processing of speech sounds. In addi-
tion, the right temporal lobe is important for processing and
integrating more subtle aspects of language. The affective
appreciation of humor is generally in the right hemisphere, par-
ticularly the medial ventral prefrontal cortex and bilateral cer-
ebellum. These findings have generally been obtained in adults,
and it is not clear how they would translate for children. This is
a fruitful area for further study.
The use of humor has been found to relate to popularity,
physical health, and adaptive well-being. It has been linked
to strong prosocial skills as well as group cohesion. There are
also linkages of humor to indirect and direct bullying. Affilia-
tive humor has been linked to prosocial behaviors as well as to
indirect bullying as a way of maintaining group cohesion. In
contrast, aggressive bullying is linked to creating a victim who
is socially rejected by a particular group. This type of aggres-
sive bullying has been dramatized in teenage movies such as
Mean Girls. Aggressive bullying was also found to be more
prevalent with males, but the bullying selected for evaluation
was more of a physical than verbal nature.
Temperament and communication competence has also been
linked to humor and peer status. Activity level, approachability,
and responsivity were temperamental characteristics that were
strongly related to humor. An interesting finding was that tem-
peramental style was not related to humor or social acceptance.
Communication competence has been the focus of many
studies. Literal comprehension of jokes, riddles, and puns
detracts from the humor portrayed and is often found in
children with autistic spectrum disorder, nonverbal learning
disabilities, or mental retardation. In these cases, the children
understand the meaning of the words but are unable to translate
the subtle complexity of the joke into mirth or laughter. The
few studies that have been conducted on humor in children and
adolescents with disabilities have found deficits in pragmatic
language, abstract reasoning, and perspective taking (theory
of mine) interfere with the comprehension of humor. These
problems are related to some of the difficulty that children with
disabilities have in socialization.
The study of humor in children with disabilities is scarce,
particularly in learning disabilities and attention deficit hyper-
activity disorder. With several studies of adults showing that
the most socially competent people were those with a good
sense of humor, the dearth of these studies is of concern. Stud-
ies that exist are generally comparing children with autism with
those with Down’s syndrome. There were no studies of chil-
dren with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and only a
few with children with a diagnosis of autistic spectrum disorder
or nonverbal learning disability. The linkage of humor to
popularity and social competence would seem to indicate that
studying humor in these children not only helps us to under-
stand these disorders but also to develop more appropriate and
Semrud-Clikeman and Glass 11
Finally, most of the neuroimaging work that has been
completed has been done with adults and older adolescents.
It would be highly informative to evaluate, in more depth,
humor skills in children with disabilities. Moreover, using neu-
roimaging with children and adolescents with and without dis-
abilities would provide an interesting picture of how humor
develops over time, both behaviorally and neurologically.
Given the previous findings of structural differences in white
matter of children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder,
autistic spectrum disorder, or nonverbal learning disability,
particularly in the right hemisphere,
it would be productive
to evaluate functional and neural connectivity using functional
MRI and diffusion tensor imaging to study the integrity of the
white matter, particularly when the child/adolescent is viewing
humorous material. Children with autistic spectrum disorder
have been found to accurately respond to cartoon but not
human faces. Neuroimaging could investigate the neural
pathway differences that are present when a child with autistic
spectrum disorder views cartoons compared to viewing human
faces. Such information can provide basic knowledge as to how
these children understand their world and possibly open new
avenues of social skills remediation.
This work was conducted at the University of Texas at Austin and at
Michigan State University.
Both authors contributed to the conceptualization of the work and to
the writing, with Dr Semrud-Clikeman contributing the greatest effort.
There were no other authors involved in any way.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to
the authorship and/or publication of this article.
The author(s) received no financial support for the research and/or
authorship of this article.
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