Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The autistic way of laughing

ResearchBlogging.org
There are real and fake smiles that can be distinguished visually, if you know how, and it turns out that there are real and fake laughs. William Hudenko, a clinician and researcher, patiently explained this to me at IMFAR 2009. Real laughs are "voiced" versus fake laughs that are "unvoiced" and these two kinds of laughs can be distinguished acoustically.

Hudenko et al. (in press) describe voiced laughs as having a "tonal, song-like quality" and as "strongly associated with positive affect," while unvoiced laughs are "largely atonal and noisier." Instead of reflecting a person's genuine emotions, unvoiced laughs are hypothesized to reflect various social signals.

When nonautistics laugh, about half the time their laughs are unvoiced. So how do autistics laugh?

Hudenko and his colleagues collected a lot of laughs from autistic children and two groups of nonautistic children (matched on chronological age, and matched according to vocabulary test age equivalents). Laughs were elicited in a 10-minute "laugh assessment sequence" in which "an examiner playfully interacted with each child."

The results? Autistics laughed just as much as nonautistics. The sole difference between autistic and nonautistic laughs was in proportion of voiced laughs. While on average, 97% of autistic children's "laugh episodes" were voiced, only 63% and 47% (age-equivalent and chronological age groups respectively) of nonautistic children's laughs were voiced. And about half the autistic children produced only voiced laughs.

You can find some autistic and nonautistic laughs here.

In their discussion, Hudenko et al. put forward this view:

...children with autism routinely produce fewer types of laughs than typically developing children because their laughter is more closely linked to their internal experience of positive affect.
If this is so, then the autistic children in this study expressed more positive emotion--more genuine happy affect--in interacting with another person than did the nonautistic children. Hudenko et al. also refer to an earlier study which found, in the typical population, more positive responses to voiced versus unvoiced laughter. Nonautistics prefer voiced laughter.

Given prevailing standards in the autism literature (arising from prevalent standards of autism advocacy), no one should be surprised at how Hudenko et al. interpret their findings. The authors imply, in the absence of any evidence in this direction, that all this happy, genuine, engaging autistic laughter is unlikely to be socially "appropriate." Unfortunately, according to the authors, autistics "are not using laughter in a socially subtle manner." And here is the paper's unfounded concluding sentence:

In fact, by using laughter in a less social manner it may be that this expressive pattern actually contributes to the social deficits exhibited by children with autism instead of serving to facilitate connections with others.
But the story doesn't quite end there. I ran into Dr Hudenko at IMFAR because he and one of his colleagues had a poster (abstract is here), a follow-up of sorts. In this new and as yet unpublished study, recordings of voiced and unvoiced autistic and nonautistic laughs were played for 135 nonautistic college-aged students. The students were asked to rate their "affective response" to each laugh on a scale from strongly negative to strongly positive. In a different task, the students were asked whether each recorded laugh came from an autistic or nonautistic child.

The results? The students rated their responses to autistic laughs as being significantly more positive than their responses to nonautistic laughs. Interestingly, this held true even when voicing--whether laughs were voiced or unvoiced--was accounted for. And when asked to do so, the nonautistic students could tell autistic and nonautistic laughs apart. The students performed above chance on this task, while only about one-fifth of them believed they could make this distinction.

So Hudenko et al. (in press) contend that autistics' way of laughing is defective and detrimental--a presumed contributor to autistics' presumed social deficits. This in turn implies that ideally, autistics would not have such engagingly positive, genuine and distinctive laughs, and instead should have the only "right" kind of laughter, the kind which characterizes nonautistics. But according to Dr Hudenko's IMFAR follow-up study, "improving" autistics this way would result in their laughter being less preferable to nonautistics than is currently the case.


Reference:

Hudenko, W., Stone, W., & Bachorowski, J. (2009). Laughter Differs in Children with Autism: An Acoustic Analysis of Laughs Produced by Children With and Without the Disorder Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders DOI: 10.1007/s10803-009-0752-1

Addendum: This post is included in the 5th edition of Scientia Pro Publica (more information here), hosted by Pro-Science.

46 comments:

Sharon said...

Oh dear. I read the first section of this post and actually thought for a while, given the results that autistic children expressed their joy in such a genuinely demonstrative and warm way, that the highly significant level of voiced laughter, could have only one conclusion. I forgot for a while the way so much research into autism is skewed to show the autistic people as sub optimal. The conclusions of this in-press paper do not follow the data and appear to be pure speculation to follow the author's' own prejudices.

Thanks for writing about this and providing yet more evidence of the standards of autism research.

Anne said...

Darn those autistic kids. Pretty soon they'll be floating in the air like Uncle Albert:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jFdQ5qY6HAs

"Findings are interpreted to suggest that children with autism express laughter primarily in response to positive internal states, rather than using laughter to negotiate social interactions."
- WJ Hudenko

"That will be quite enough of that."
- Mary Poppins

Jannalou said...

Wow, next thing we're going to see is a bunch of ABA programs that target teaching autistic kids how to laugh at the right times and in the right ways. *rolls eyes*

I listened to the recordings linked to in the post, and I think the voiced laughter is the type we tend to find contagious. It's contagious because it's real. It's the kind of laughter that just makes you feel good, no matter what kind of day you've been having.

Totally unscientific evaluation, yes, but emotions do tend to be subjective things! :)

Michelle Dawson said...

It's not clear in the original post, but Hudenko et al. (in press) wasn't epublished in JADD until after IMFAR 2009.

So I saw Dr Hudenko's very good poster (which he patiently explained to me) before I saw how his previous study was reported in the JADD paper.

In fairness to Dr Hudenko, the findings reported in his IMFAR poster, which was among my favourites at this conference, were not intepreted as evidence that autistics do not laugh properly. At least, so far.

Fleecy said...

Interesting thing... too bad it seems despite everything pointing to it being a happy experience all-around (autistic person laughing because they're happy, it's the kind of laughter that other people like hearing, etc...) the conclusion drawn in the paper seems made by somebody determined to turn it into a bad thing somehow.

Anonymous said...

Correct me if I'm wrong here, but the study also seems to show that non-autistics produce fewer "genuine" laughs; and, although we rate genuine laughter more positively, we somehow prefer fake laughter. No wonder we are so screwed up!

Right on the mark regarding the lack of reciprocity among researchers (yourself excluded).

Morgan Winebarger

Joseph said...

Reminds me of the De Martino et al. interpretation. Autistics fail to incorporate emotional context into logical reasoning, and this is apparently a "core deficit" of the disorder.

In fairness, most researchers (save for Mottron, Dawson & Gernsbacher) do this sort of thing. It's part of the current social construction of autism.

Michelle Dawson said...

In response to Joseph, in De Martino et al (2008), the autistics did not fail to incorporate emotion into their decision-making.

According to the actual measure of "emotion" (or proxy for emotion) used in De Martino et al. (SCR), autistics' emotional response to the decision-making task was in fact stronger than nonautistics'. Also, autistics' measured emotional responses were consistent with their decision-making.

The autistics did fail to behave illogically. That is all they failed to do.

Socrates said...

Thanks M. You're doing an important job here.

Autism Reality NB said...

I am going to shock you and say that we may (I think) actually agree on something, in part at least. This "autistic laughing" research idea seems ... laughable.

My son Conor laughs whenever he feels like it and when he does he laughs out loud. I hear him often watching television or a video by himself and laughing out loud. Since he does it by himself and when someone is with him I don't need a research study to tell me it is authentic and he is enjoying himself.

Michelle Dawson said...

Replacing autism research with the anecdotes, assumptions and certainties of autism advocates (if Mr Doherty says so, it must be true) would I'm sure be popular with autism advocates.

In my view, investigating how people (autistics and nonautistics) communicate and interact, rather than making and imposing assumptions about this, is a good idea.

Mr Doherty's very false assumption that I agree with the low/no standards of science and ethics he demands for autistics (research should be deemed ridiculous and abandoned whenever autism advocates declare their certainty about autistics) are based on his signature major misreading of what I wrote.

daedalus2u said...

This is very interesting. I suspect (and this is just speculation), that the recorded laughs were presented in a social-context-free situation, so there was no “social communication content” to interpret. In that context, the ASD laugh (without an underlying attempt to communicate and so manipulate) is more “authentic” than an NT laugh which has a social content which is inappropriate in the social-context-free situation that the recorded laughs were presented in.

Roger Kulp said...

I had to read this through a couple of times to understand it.It seems to overlook something.When I am physically very sick,either from an acute infection,or in the case of a severe stroke-like episode, seizure,or whatever the hell these are my autism always gets worse.In the case of the former,I suffer major regressions, that take about a year and a half to recover from.In the case of the latter,it's a case of the severe phase lasts a day or a day and a half or so,and as I recover,my autism gets worse.I am unable to talk other than weird vocal noises. I headbang.I flap my arms a lot,and I laugh,titter and giggle a lot. There is no cause for this,it is entirely reflexive,and dependent upon the severity of my autism at the time.

This aspect seems to be entirely missing from these studies.

Autism Reality NB said...

Ms Dawson

Despite your rhetoric I do not believe there is an "autistic" way of laughing.

As for anecdotal evidence, you are now suggesting that it is impossible for a father who has known his son for 13 years has participated in happy joyous activities and seen him laughing (look at the picture of him in the hammock on the side of my blog site Facing Autism in NB) or heard him laughing at videos etc can not tell if his laughter is genuine?

LOL I am sorry but no one can possibly take you seriously at this point. You have "jumped the shark" with your claims to know all about "autistics".

Michelle Dawson said...

In response to Mr Doherty, there are more autistics in the world than Mr Doherty's son, wonderful as he is. There are also more nonautistics in the world than Mr Doherty.

Given the content of Mr Doherty's comments, the level of his discourse, I am not sure whether I have to provide references to demonstrate these points.

I have bad news for Mr Doherty. Scientists do this kind of stuff all the time. I mean reporting accurately from primary sources, testing ideas, and so on.

And yes, Mr Doherty demands that all this stop (now!), to be replaced by the criterion "if Mr Doherty says so, it must be true." But it may take a bit of time for this science thing to finish cowering under Mr Doherty's ultra-slick ridicule and vanish from the planet. In the meantime, I'm afraid he may be inconvenienced.

K said...

While I don't care for Mr. Doherty, nor his usual snarky and trollish comments, you completely misunderstood the carrot he threw your way, which if your use to his annoying snarky-ness, is understandable. It is rare that Mr. Doherty ever offers anything constructive. However, a parents observations is not necessarily useless. One of the gold standards of establishing an autism diagnosis in young children is the ADI-R. This assessment, based on a parental and care giver interview, has been shown to be highly accurate. Practicing clinicians often rely upon parental reports as do pediatricians etc. To completely dismiss a parent, as you have done and with the arguments you have used is not based on current acceptable scientific methods of gathering data. I've yet to meet an autism researcher or clinician that doesn't value parental reports, and I have in the short time dealing with them, met a lot of them at UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke University. Many of whom have been extensively published in high quality journals.

Michelle Dawson said...

Let's see. Trying to cover just some of the possibilities:

1. I disagree that scientific research should be replaced by Mr Doherty's certainties.

2. I disagree that parent report should replace autism research, rather than inform it.

3. Oddly, here is a case where a parent totally agrees with findings published in a peer-reviewed journal, but this parent, Mr Doherty, takes the position that the research is ridiculous and that it is ridiculous for me to write about it. This implies that if the research were inconsistent with Mr Doherty's observations, then he would be pleased.

4. I disagree with the assumption that all parents of autistic children report exactly the same thing about their autistic children.

5. I disagree that reporting on what has been published in the scientific literature (what I did) is exactly the same as completely dismissing parent report.

6. I disagree that conducting and publishing scientific research is exactly the same as completely dismissing parent report.

7. Re diagnosis, if parent report were sufficient, then the ADOS would be unecessary, as would clinical experience. See Lord et al. (2006).

8. I disagree that investigating how autistics communicate and interact is unecessary and ridiculous because Mr Doherty has spoken.

And so on.

K said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
K said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Michelle Dawson said...

Sorry, I forgot to ask K and Mr Doherty a few questions. Have you read Hudenko et al. (in press)? Also, did you see the poster Hudenko et al. (2009)? Many thanks in advance for your responses.

Michelle Dawson said...

Also, I deleted one of K's comments due to its defamatory nature. If you want to personally insult people, call them garbage (to put it more politely than K did), etc., do not do so here, please.

Michelle Dawson said...

Now that I've read K's second comment I have deleted it also, for the same reason I deleted K's other post.

K said...

I've taken a screen shot of my comments and I will post it for others to judge. You are not interested in autistics, only dogma. I suspect that an autistic parent commenting was just something you couldn't really combat was it Michelle?

K said...

"Sorry, I forgot to ask K and Mr Doherty a few questions. Have you read Hudenko et al. (in press)? Also, did you see the poster Hudenko et al. (2009)? Many thanks in advance for your responses."

You removed my well reasoned comments, why would you care about what I say?

K said...

You removed my comment addressing your 8 points that had nothing defamatory in it. Why did you do that?

I simply addressed your points as an autistic parent.
Are you in the habit of deleting points of view you cannot contradict?

K said...

Michelle, I've caught you in a lie. You said my 8 point response to your 8 point post included defamatory comments. That is a lie. A lie that will easily proved with my screenflow capture of my comments.

Michelle Dawson said...

In response to K, I have those messages also.

K wrote that a person is "this human excrement" (first post I deleted) and that a human being is "an admittedly repulsive person" (second post I deleted).

If you post those kinds of extreme personal insults on this blog, your messages will be deleted.

K said...

Well, I don't find the word repulsive, to be defamatory and since you frequently allow curse words in the comments as well as personal attacks, I don't understand what the piety is about unless there is more to it than you have let on.

Anonymous said...

This should be right up Harolds street, what with him being a big supporter of ABA an all.

Here we have a study that tells us that autistic people have different laughing habits (NOT "Specific" or "uniquely autistic" laughs as he erronously claims over at his blog), AND which hypothesises how this could lead to or represent social impairments that people with autism face.

If we could develop a social skills programme that teaches people with autism how to laugh "properly", we could potentially reduce those impairments. We do this with turn-taking, social rules, general behaviour, SaLT (prosody and production), communication skills (content and context).

So, why not with laughs?

This isn't about "specific" laughs, as Mr Doherty asserts in his usual manner, but about what common autistic laughing habits mean in terms of social impairments.

Doherty Jr can "genuinely" laugh all he wants, but if he doesn't laugh when it's socially expected of him, then he's going to be at a disadvantage.

This isn't as hard to understand as Mr Doherty appears to be finding it.

I must therefore question whether he has sufficiently capacity to understand to understand the subject.

Anonymous said...

In addition, Harold bleated :

"As for anecdotal evidence, you are now suggesting that it is impossible for a father who has known his son for 13 years...can not tell if his laughter is genuine?"

Nothing in Ms Dawsons opening post, prior work, or subsequent exchange could lead a reasonable reader to conclude that she was making this arguement.

No such suggestion was made, thus Harold will be unable to provide a direct quote.

Wheter Harold can tell Connor is laughing "genuinely" or not is irrelevant. This discussion is about the subject of wheter laughing patterns can potentially impair people with autism in social contexts.

Harold has thus far given no arguement as to whether it can or cannot.

Like it or not Harold, it's (thankfully) not up to dismiss research just becuase you can't understand it.

Anne said...

Parental observations aren't useless at all. But if I understand Harold's position, from what he posted here and on his website, he's saying that it's a waste of time for scientists to study behavior that is easily observable by us in everyday life. Ironically, this is a criticism that could probably be leveled at the discipline of behavior analysis as a whole.

By the way I looked at Dr. Hudenko's website for the Ithaca College autism treatment laboratory. It says that they're evaluating a unique form of treatment that "combines a more traditional behavioral approach with a novel emotion-focused component." No idea what this means. (But I did notice that Frank Klein was quoted on the page - surprise!)

Hudenko's research involves relationships between autistic kids and others. The laughing study was about the affective response of listeners to vocal expressions of autistic children, and the next study is on the relationships between parents and their children. Both are interesting areas of study, I think.

Joseph said...

It's not complicated. Parental observations may be correct, but that doesn't mean they can be generalized to all autistics. For example, my autistic son does not like broccoli. Can I conclude from this that autistic children dislike broccoli more than non-autistic children?

You see, that's where science comes in.

Michelle Dawson said...

In response to Anne, Mr Doherty's position, per his comments here, is solely about his own certainty (he does not mention any other parents) about his autistic son's observable behaviour.

Mr Doherty claims that the certainty of one parent (himself) about one autistic child means that--obviously!--entire areas of research are stupid and ridiculous and should not be conducted or reported.

Such are the standards of science Mr Doherty (who expresses utter certainty about a paper he has not read) applies to autistics. See Joseph's comment about broccoli...

Also, as I wrote in the original post, Dr Hudenko has two laugh studies so far.

There's the one epublished in JADD (Hudenko et al, in press), in which the acoustical properties of autistics' and nonautistics' laughs were compared, and one significant group difference was found (proportion of voiced vs unvoiced laughs). For those interested in writing or commenting on this paper, I suggest reading it.

Then there is the study reported in Dr Hudenko's IMFAR 2009 poster (Hudenko & Magenheimer, 2009). In this study, which has not been published yet, nonautistic students rated autistic and nonautistic voiced and unvoiced laughs, then also attempted to tell autistic from nonautistic laughs.

In my original post, I linked to the abstracts of both studies, as I do in this comment.

Marius Filip said...

I agree with Mr. Doherty that this kind of study is ridiculous - autistics face so many social challenges that laughter is, to me at least, among the least important concerns.

Regarding the post of Ms. Dawson, there is one thing I don't understand: "Real laughs are "voiced" versus fake laughs that are "unvoiced" and these two kinds of laughs can be distinguished acoustically."

"Real" and "fake" according to what and applied to whom?

If the criteria for "real" and "fake" are derived solely from non-autistics, then the voiced laughs of the autistics are mere acoustic coincidences with the "real" laughs of the non-autistics, without any other implication of "real-ness" for autistics.

If the criteria for "real" and "fake" are derived from both autistics and non-autistics together, then the study does not say much more than the obvious: autistics have difficulties with social situations involving more subtle, non-obvious information - such as when to say a white lie, when and how to avoid an answer, how to perceive an innuendo or how and when to give a "fake" laugh.

Considering that not understanding the figurative language or a joke is much more damaging to the social workings of a person than the way he laughs, I believe the benefits of the above mentioned study are rather minor.

Because I assume no autistic will find a better place in this world if he'll begin with improving his laughter.

And neither will the other people accept better the autistics knowing the nature of their laughing.

Quite the contrary, considering the other study mentioned by Ms. Dawson which, when corroborated with the former one, suggests that even though non-autistics prefer voiced laughs, this does not bring any significant social advantage to the autistics.

Michelle Dawson said...

In response to Mr Filip, Mr Doherty did not read Hudenko et al. (in press), nor did he attend IMFAR 2009 to see Hudenko and Magenheimer (2009).

Re voiced versus unvoiced laughs, and how they are responded to by nonautistics, I suggest reading Hudenko et al. (in press) and the literature cited there, including Bachorowski and Owen (2001).

Also, according to Hudenko and Magenheimer (2009), nonautistics prefer autistics' laughs to nonautistics' laughs regardless of voicing. Please read the original post, where I report this.

In addition, neither study (Hudenko et al., in press; Hudenko & Magenheimer, 2009) provides any evidence that autistics' laughs were associated with any kind of social deficit or were socially detrimental to autistics. Similarly neither study provides any evidence that autistics' laughter "does not bring any significant social advantage" as Mr Filip claims.

Both Mr Doherty and Mr Filip take the position that autistics' communication and interaction needs no investigation, and instead should be either assumed to be a certain way or assumed to be too unimportant to investigate. I disagree with them both.

CP said...

I'm currently studying the use of laughter by children with severe autism (whilst accepting fully your previous comments about the use of the word 'severe' - I mean those who score as being severe on CARS, including children who are non verbal).

We examine the sequences within which laughter takes place in naturally occurring interactions and look at the responses of the co-participants etc. Our conclusions are that laughter is used very skillfully by the children we have studied, and can be used to perform actions, perhaps unexpected by the current autism literature (e.g teasing).

Michelle Dawson said...

Thanks for that information, CP. Those sound like interesting findings, that I hope would be published some day.

For those interested in the comment about autism "severity" CP refers to, it is here.

CP said...

Perhaps slightly off topic but I sometimes think the phrase 'low-communicating' is a better term for the group of children I work with. Of course this reflects a rather NT-centric view of communication, but is far better than 'low functioning'. I tend to use 'severe' to avoid using 'low-functioning'.

I'm hoping to write up this work on laughter later this year.

Michelle Dawson said...

Briefly in response to CP, "level of functioning" and "severity" are not the same thing.

"High-functioning" and "low-functioning" refer to ranges of scores on a specific test of intelligence or developmental level (including adaptive ability, in some cases) at a specific time. They do not refer to a kind or autism or a kind of person.

Autistics score differently (sometimes dramatically) on different tests of intelligence or developmental level at the same time (e.g., Magiati & Howlin, 2001; Dawson et al., 2007; Klin et al., 2002, 2003, 2007). And autistics' scores often change significantly across time (e.g., Eaves and Ho, 2004; Farley et al., 2009).

In addition, the threshold dividing "high-functioning" from "low-functioning" ranges of scores varies in the literature by more than 2 standard deviations.

As I wrote in a previous comment, "severity" is an attempt to quantify the obviousness of autistic traits and abilities, and currently there is no good measure of this presumed dimension, which is different from "level of functioning."

My suggestion is that if you are going to use terms like "high-functioning" or "low-functioning" or "severe" or "mild" or the like, you should define them. What instrument(s) do you want used, at which time (what age), and with which thresholds? And then provide evidence why these particular demarcations are the relevant, valid ones.

Lili Marlene said...

All this research about laughter and autism is fascinating. We have a pre-schooler who has had a laugh that sounds like a maniacal pirate since infancy. It seems to be an inherited trait, and is most adorable and amusing. I'm sure this laughter is not quite normal. As a whole our family is not quite normal. We should be studied.

Anonymous said...

To Michelle,

I disagree with almost everything that "Autism Reality NB" says in general, but this time he comes out as the more reasonable one. Maybe it's the autism, I don't know, but your response could not have been worse. It's completely out in left field.

First, at no point in his comment did Doherty say that he opposed scientific research though your previous dealings with him may certainly be cause for concern.

Second, one has to wonder why a person would laugh on their own if it was not genuine, autistic or not, as Mr. Doherty says. There is no scientific experiment to back this up exactly as you claim, but at some point you have to say "What's next? Researching if people (autistics vs. non-autistics) want to turn on the light when it's dark?" Perhaps autistics can see in the dark.

Third, listing points (ironically like what I'm doing now, but if you understand this format then so be it) is not being able to see the forest for the trees. You're focusing too much on the minutia of the details instead of the big picture.

Fourth, this is a comment section. People tend to talk about their own experiences. Should he have worded it differently? Would saying that his own experiences don't jive with the research and inserted a caveat?

Fifth, you are trying to be right just for the sake of being right instead of anything productive. People who do that are usually called something that I won't repeat here.

Sixth, you made me defend Mr. Doherty. I will never forgive you for this. ;)

Michelle Dawson said...

For what it's worth, in my view, before you trash a paper, you should read it. Before you trash a conference presentation or poster, you should see it.

Obviously, Anonymous disagrees, as do many influential autism advocates.

Regardless, I think very basic standards, like becoming familiar with research before pronouncing on it, should apply to autistics.

nerkul said...

Nonautistics are complicit in their being manipulated. For them fakeness is a crucial part of the social thing. What the second study here appears to show is that they know they're being manipulated. Though maybe this changes when the contextual clues are re-inserted.

I was searching for results one way or the other on this, so thank you. I find the subject of nonautistic subconscious activity remarkable.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing. My son is not verbal and I am trying to find ways to understand him. At night he runs around in circles in his dark room laughing. I can't help but wonder if this laugh is caused more by feeling nervous or unsettling than happy.

MissSensory said...

Thank you! You are helping to dispel harmful myths. Someone said that I could not be autistic because they saw me laugh.

Anonymous said...

I have an autistic son and I have no idea what all this talk is about. My son laughs therefore he is. Enough said.