Make Your Child Laugh: The Developmental Stages of Humor

Many children with special needs have problems with friendships. The problems can surround not understanding nonverbal communication, to not being able to identify emotions, to confusion over humor and more. One thing we know for sure is that a life without friendships and human connections is a very lonely life.

Humor is Good Among Friends
Humor is something that can bring two people together. Laughter signifies that people are having fun and is good for a healthy relationship. Sharing jokes and funny stories provides a connection between two people.

Problems When Humor is Misunderstood
Children love to laugh. But children with special needs such as autism, ADHD, Sensory Processing Disorder, etc. often take things quite literally. This results in them missing a joke or the humor in a situation. If a child can’t share laughter with a group, then she is missing a part of the bonding that occurs and this affects the development of friendships.

Tips for “Teaching” Humor
Before you can work on humor with your child, you need to understand humor from a developmental perspective. This is a general guideline and actual ages vary depending on the child.

By 6 months of age, babies will laugh at behaviors that are not typical of their parents. Making exaggerated faces will get a baby to laugh.

A 1 year old baby loves the game of peek-a-boo.

  • At this stage, you can play peek-a-boo and other games that do not end at a predictable time, such as jack-in-the-box. This can be played with a 4 or 5 year old child with special needs (or even older) if she has not acquired this basic level of humor. There are many different kinds of jack-in-the-boxes, such as Sock Monkey Jack in the Box and Thomas The Tank Engine Musical Jack In The Box, so you should be able to find one that will appeal to your child.

Starting at age 1 or 1 ½, children start pretend play and will make believe that an object is something other than what it is or will use it in a “wrong” way. For example, a child may put a sock on his hand and laugh.

By age 2 to 3 as language skills develop, children enjoy giving objects the wrong name. “Bathroom” humor may also begin at this time.

  • For the two stages above, you can create a game to play with your child. Take a box and fill it with familiar objects. Pull something out and pretend it is something else. For example, you can take a sock out of the box and say it is a hat and put it on your head.  After you take a few turns, let your child try.

By age 3, children enjoy playing with the sounds of words. They may create variations of common words or generate rhyming words. Some of these children may also enjoy making nonsensical sentences.

  • [easyazon-image align="right" asin="0811857050" locale="us" height="110" src="" width="89"]Saxton Freymann and Joost Eiffers created a set of books containing photographs of fruits and vegetables depicting emotions, vehicles, and other objects. The pictures can help children with special needs to not only identify moods and emotions, but to also appreciate the silliness of the photographs. The books are titled How Are You Peeling?, Fast Food, and Food Play.

Around age 5, children start telling riddles or knock-knock jokes that don’t make any sense.

By age 6 or 7, the nonsensical part of the riddles and knock-knock jokes disappear and children find true riddles and knock-knock jokes very humorous.

Knowing the developmental stages of humor is important. When attempting to teach humor to a child with special needs, you need to make sure that you are teaching what is developmentally appropriate and not what is appropriate based on the child’s chronological age. In addition to helping to develop your child’s humor, other benefits will be seen, such as improved eye contact and a fun emotional connection between you and your child.

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Danette Schott, M.A. About Danette Schott, M.A.

Using her research background, Danette founded S-O-S Research to provide information on "invisible" special needs to parents, teachers, and other professionals. Currently she is Executive Editor at Special-Ism, focusing on the challenges or the -Isms experienced by children with various special needs, such as high functioning autism, ADHD, anxiety, mental illness, and Sensory Processing Disorder.

  • Barbara

    Very nice, Danette! Humor as a developmental *cognitive* skill is seldom noted.

  • http:/// Danette

    Thanks, Barbara! I did many of these activities with my daughter when she 4 and 5. They were beneficial on a number of different levels.

  • Jackie

    great article. I like the examples you provide with the ages. My kids are almost 1, 2.5, and 5 so it is neat to think about their sense of humor from a development POV. We love reading the back of laffy taffy’s with our 5 year old. He thinks they are funny even though he doesn’t always “get” them. And my almost 1 year old thinks it is hilarious when I pretend to drink from her bottle. Then there is the 2.5 year old…. bathroom jokes all the way. :)

  • http:/// Danette

    Thanks for bringing in the real life examples with your kids!

  • Six

    You have submitted to my carnival before…would you submitt this one? (CHAOS)
    I like this as it is truly for all of us. Some of my best childhood memories are of at the dinner table telling jokes and funny stories. My younger brother always had a tale of what his invisible friend JOE HABAR did that day. Now as a MOM I feel joy and relief when I see and hear mine laughing.

  • martha

    Just want to say thanks for this great information. This is kind of a thing I was looking for. Thanks Yahoo

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  • Rhonda Banford

    This is a great article! Can you please point me towards any references for these ages? I have looked in the past and was unable to come up with any. Thanks!

  • Rachel Arntson

    Hello Danette,

    I was very happy to see your article. I will be doing a poster session at ASHA this year entitled, “Laughter and Learning – Let’s Get Serious About This.” I believe so strongly in the power of laughter with my young students, birth to three, but this key skill continues well beyond toddlers. If it is OK, I will refer to your article.

  • http:/// Danette Schott, M.A.

    Rachel, I would be honored. Thank you!

  • http:/// Danette Schott, M.A.

    Rhonda, thanks so much for the comment. As info on the web grows, it becomes harder to find what we need. There’s a good chart by age created by Dr. Kelley from Texas Tech University. . Kids Health also provides a very easy-to-read article on this topic.

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  • mylindaelliott

    I remember working on teaching my child that things were funny… And then professionals saying she didn’t have autism because she understood humor!?