Nat has always had a laughing “behavior.” I say “behavior” because it seems small of me to label something as wonderful as laughter as a behavior. But in autism, a behavior, of course, connotes something that needs to be changed. But when you speak of “behavior” without “a” modifying it, it can be good or bad.
Nat has been doing the Daffy Laffies for as long as I can remember. I actually remember his first laugh. As so many things are with Nat, you could watch him consciously learn how to laugh. You could actually see the realization lighting up his eyes, the delight with this sound, this feeling in his body. We were on the couch, the three of us. He was standing on Ned’s chest. He couldn’t have been more than a few weeks old (?) but yes, he was standing. Way before he could walk or stand for real, he would shoot up from your lap like rockets at his feet. Mom and others feared he would be bowlegged. Turns out legs were the least of our worries.
There he was looking down at us, with his white-blond hair and his eyes that looked like Cleo’s, the fish from Disney’s Pinocchio. He said, “Hehhlh.” a partially spoken, partially gulped word with a British “L” at the end. We laughed. He said, “Hehllh,” again. So happy with himself. One of his first sounds of communication. Then he strung the Hehhlhs together, connected with breaths and there he had it: laughing. “You laughed, Natty!” I might have said, dying to hear it again.
In a video from let’s say 1990 — real Baby Nat — he’s lying on the floor at my mom’s house and I’m waving some little stuffed thing in his face. He explodes, laughing with his whole body: a twitch, a squeal, surprised eyes. Then he settles back down into the rug and seems to forget all about it. I wave the little toy again and there he goes, his torso leaps (though he’s still lying down, too young to even turn over) and his laugh floats out of him like bubbles. Insane bubbles. Mom got very weirded out by the laughing — or perhaps by the way it would stop completely and then start up, zero to 60.
I see it now and I know, yes yes that’s probably autistic behavior, and I was feeding right into it with that stuffed thing. Why the hell not? Was it going to make him more autistic? Zounds. And by the way, just because it is autistic behavior, does that make it bad?
Well, sometimes. At age 7 Nat would wake up in the middle of the night laughing. During those days his laughter only filled me with despair. I wanted to sleep but something was waking him up. Dr. Bauman, our neurologist, thought maybe this was a small seizure. We tried to give him an EEG but he didn’t sleep deeply enough so it was inconclusive. I don’t think we pursued the laughing at that point; we were only interested in getting him to sleep the night. Clonidine eventually took care of that.
Over the years the Loud Laughing has been with us. At 13 I feared he would “spoil” his bar mitzvah with an outburst of uncontrollable laughter. His teachers told me to redirect it by having him alphabetize index cards. We stopped that eventually because it felt wrong to be squelching laughter. “We had to name him Isaac,” Ned would say sardonically. (Nat’s middle name — Isaac — means “laughter,” in Hebrew.)
So at 26 he’s at it again. It seems to start up when he says “wheels,” in his self-talk. I don’t know what “wheels” means — wheels, I suppose, but what’s funny about that? Only Nat knows. I hear “heem heem wheels,” and I know that soon there will be hysterical laughter. He pushes it and pushes it until it is so obviously fake it actually goes from annoying to truly funny. But still annoying. It begs to be stopped. But you can’t tell him to stop because then his eyes turn into Cleo’s again and he’s delighted. What may have started out as a self-stimulatory behavior — to boil it down to ugly clinical terms — morphed into attention-getting behavior. So how do the Genius BCBA’s treat this one? Pay attention at the beginning, ignore at the end? Yeah, screw that noise.
Nope. The best way to stop it is to say, “What’s the joke, Natty?” And then it dries right up as if laughter never existed.
But it will trickle back when he senses your relief that it’s over. You can watch it happen, his serious face all drawn together into a horsey moue, but if he looks at you, it cracks open to the real thing. And it’s pure Hehhlh.