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V.4 #2 Social-Emotional Development - The Illusive Joke: The Comprehension of Humor in Children with

Learning Disabilities (LD) are a class of disorders that result in difficulty processing information in one of three areas: written, oral, and nonverbal. Of those three areas, the category hardest to understand, evaluate and remediate falls within the nonverbal domain and is concerned with math, visual-spatial skills, abstract problem solving, social skills, body language and tone of voice. Typically, if the individual’s difficulty with mathematics is not severe enough to receive special services in a school setting, the other areas of difficulty are not addressed and the individual’s difficulties are often disregarded by adults and peers. This constellation of difficulties has sometimes been recognized by professionals as a Nonverbal Learning Disability (NVLD); however there is no consensus among professionals about the nature of this particular type of LD as NVLD is not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the book used for diagnosis. Due to the specific difficulties these individuals experience, understanding humor is often illusive. Research on NVLD has looked at humor as one area of weakness through which to understand this subtype of LD.

Development of Humor

Humor is considered a tool of social interaction that serves many functions including building connections and reducing tension between people. Additionally, humor is something that develops as the child matures. The young child typically enjoys humor that consists of a “slapstick” style, something also known as physical humor or comedy; The Three Stooges or the Roadrunner cartoons fall within this category. However, as the child’s language and thinking abilities develop, an appreciation for verbal humor emerges. Psychological theorists would align this development to a Piagetian framework and the change in the child’s abilities due to a change from Pre-Operational Stage thought to the Concrete Operational Stage thought that occurs approximately between the ages of six through eight. During this time period, children begin to respond to the incongruities of humor that are more conceptual (thoughts and ideas) rather than only perceptual (seeing and hearing). Thus, humor is related to thinking, perception and language all of which develop with the child.

Abilities of Perception

As previously noted, children described as NVLD often experience difficulty within the perceptual domain. Delays in perception such as understanding affect displayed on faces and in detecting absurdity in vocal tone may contribute to difficulties in attachment and interactive reciprocity. In addition to these relational skills deficits, visual-spatial perception deficits experienced by individuals denoted as NVLD also impact on the comprehension of humor. Visual-spatial deficits contribute to poor emotional awareness and social skills. Empathy and social-perspective taking are emotional states that are often overlooked by individuals with NVLD. Instead of their focusing on emotional states, awareness of the physical state predominates—leading to a literal interpretation of experiences. As a result, social interactions that contain subtle humor such as sarcasm is often misunderstood and are interpreted literally.

Research on Understanding of Humor

As previously noted this subtype of LD is known as NVLD and maintains a controversial status among professionals. As a result, there has not been as much research conducted in this area as on other subtypes of LD. Recent research (Semrud-Clikeman & Glass, 2008) investigating the connection between individuals with NVLD and humor found that even this relationship is complicated. In an investigation of 55 children aged 12-15, all of whom were of average intelligence, only when the students identified with NVLD were subdivided into two categories—those with social perception deficits and those without, did a relationship emerge. In this study, children with NVLD and social-perception deficits were found to have difficulties processing humor. Thus it was the individuals who possessed difficulty correctly identifying emotional expression in facial and body language depicted in social vignettes who had difficulties understanding humor. When the researchers examined individual responses, a literal response to the social vignette was found. Responses lacked an appreciation for the subtle elements of the vignette which required the individual to integrate emotional state, verbal content and situation specific details.

Teaching the Understanding of Humor

Initially the idea of teaching the understanding of humor seems absurd: you either get the joke or you don’t. However, teaching individuals with social perception difficulties to pay attention to certain characteristics of an event or experience can enhance the individual’s abilities to understand the subtle incongruities of humor. Individuals with difficulties in this area need to be taught the social skills that allow interactions between people to be pleasant and reinforcing.

One necessary skill is effective listening. Attributes of effective listening include:

  • Eye contact

  • Nod of head

  • Verbal agreements such as uh huh, yes etc…

  • Not paying attention to distractions

An individual can be taught to improve listening skills by:

  • Rehearsing what is said to them

  • Making a mental note of the conversation/thinking about it afterward

  • Role-playing and practice with the teacher, parent or trained mental health professional

  • Recognizing that verbal and non-verbal communications work together

Also, individuals with LD or NVLD may understand the literal meaning of the words spoken, yet miss the sense of the interaction. To become better at non-verbal communication skills the individual should be taught to look for consistency in interactions. In order to determine if the speaker’s verbal and non-verbal message are consistent, the individual must pay attention to:

  • The tone of voice. Does it match the meaning of the words?

  • The person’s comfort level. Is there eye contact, or do they look away? Are they fidgeting?

  • The facial expression. Do the words match the emotion on the face?

  • The body posture and gestures. Is the person moving or leaning away?

  • If the verbal and the non-verbal message are found inconsistent, the message must be interpreted. For example, if the speaker is yelling "oh shut up!" but has a smile on their face with a laughing vocal tone while leaning in, the chances are they are expressing a level of friendly banter rather than an angry exchange.

Final Thoughts

Children with LD frequently have difficulties with not only academic achievement, but also with social relationships. This is frequently due to difficulties in understanding emotions, social perception, and the literal interpretation of verbal interactions. Teachers of students with all subtypes of LD need to foster positive interpersonal relationships as an additional avenue to improved overall functioning and happiness. Understanding the importance relationships and having the ability to implement strategies to improve relationship skills for individuals with LD is within reach for all teachers. Teachers with concerns about a child with LD in their classroom and how to foster positive relationships should consult with the school psychologist within their own school for further information.


LaVoie, R. (2005). It’s so much work to be your friend. Helping the child with learning disabilities find social success. Touchstone Publications, New York: New York.

Semrud-Clikeman, M. & Glass, K. (2008). Comprehension of humor in children with nonverbal learning disabilities, reading disabilities, and without learning disabilities. Annals of Dyslexia, 58(2), 163-180.

Micheline Malow, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Special Education at Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York. In addition to teaching courses in Exceptional Students and Instructional Strategies for Teaching Students with Learning and Behavioral Disorders, she has presented at numerous professional conferences, published articles on students with exceptional needs, friendship and teacher attitudes, and has co-authored a book for Greenwood Press, Adolescents and Risk (2008).

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