Collins Dictionary defines sarcasm as,

“speech or writing which actually means the opposite of what it seems to say. Sarcasm is usually intended to mock or insult someone.”

The claim that we, as autistic people, don’t use or understand sarcasm, like so many autistic stereotypes, is a contentious one.

As we are inclined to be more straightforward than neurotypical people, both in our speech and in our comprehension, more literal, it does make sense that sarcasm would cause many of us confusion, if it means the opposite of what is being said. Indeed, I’ve read a lot of online discussions on this debate and, yes, a large of number of autistic people agree that they struggle with sarcasm, not only interpreting it from others but describing how they too are taken as sarcastic, when they really hadn’t intended to be, and I can certainly identify with the latter.

It baffles me when someone accuses me of being sarcastic when I’ve actually said something with complete sincerity – paying them a compliment, for instance. I’ve only re-examined this odd social phenomenon (yet another one) during my post-diagnostic reading and it’s such a relief to find I’m not alone on this. Is it a tone of voice or emphasis difference, I wonder? Whatever it is, my compliment is somehow translated as sarcasm during the autistic to neurotypical translation process.

I have no idea what I sound like when I communicate with others, having never recorded my voice in spontaneous social situations. Honestly, we could become paranoid if we start paying too much attention to every little aspect of our characters! I’m certainly not going to put effort into trying to change my speech pattern, in my mid-fifties, so I tend to follow all of my actual sarcasm with, “I’m joking”, in case I cause offence or distress. I’d make a terrible comedian!

Our use of, and ability to identify, sarcasm probably depends largely on the situation we’re in, for many. I find comedic sarcasm incredibly funny on certain panel shows and my favourite stand-ups. But then I’m primed to expect sarcastic wit in that situation. I can also dish out, and readily identify, lighthearted sarcasm with friends and family, as long as it’s face to face and there’s a good atmosphere.

This fits with the anecdotal reports from autistic forums – they discuss struggling to use and understand sarcasm around less familiar people – we find them harder to read, as they do us, and offence can easily be taken, even if not intended. We don’t have any clues in these situations and deciphering whether a statement is intended to be sarcastic or factual is asking a lot when we’re likely to already be in a state of heightened anxiety – it’s just one more hurdle to navigate. Particularly, if we also factor in our difficulty in reading facial and body language, both of which are used heavily with sarcastic remarks. We’re already out of our depth socially, without adding sarcasm to increase the degree of difficulty!

Sarcasm that is intended to hurt an individual is just plain nasty. Apparently, whilst sarcasm is rife in all areas of life nowadays, the most frequent use of it is on internet chat rooms and the like, and this is where the insulting sarcasm gets hurled around, thanks to perceived anonymity. This article, called The Science of Sarcasm? Yeah, Right from the Smithsonian Magazine is a little aged (2011) but still informative. It’s worth clicking on, if only for the classic Simpsons quote!

Based on this incredibly scientific analysis (I’m joking), it seems that some of us don’t get or use sarcasm at all, some of us do in familiar and comfortable situations, and for the rest of you, who have no problem with sarcasm in any situation, well aren’t YOU clever (I’m joking).