Thursday, October 21, 2010

On making bad jokes about special needs

Tonight, I went to a great party for the launch of Cool Mom Tech. Let me just qualify that: ANY Wednesday night when I am out of the house and mingling with adults automatically qualifies as a "great party," except this party was exceptional. It was in a beautiful New York City loft and there was cutting-edge tech stuff by Logitech to check out, nonstop passed appetizers and a tasty drink involving Hendricks gin, cucumber and chamomile.

I got to talking with a couple of bloggers about how much attitude five-year-olds can have. "You wouldn't believe some of the stuff that comes out of my little girl's mouth," I said.

"And how about your son‚ does he get obnoxious too?" one of the women asked. She knows Max has special needs, though she doesn't know him well.

"It's not a problem because he can't really talk!" I said, and started laughing.

She half-smiled.

[Awkward pause.]

I blame the gin  delirium from going to sleep at 2:00 a.m. for the last two nights the pure human need to sometimes make light of Serious Things.

Was it an awful thing to say?

And now, since it is 1:08 a.m. and I am out of steam and gin and bad jokes, I am crashing and turning this over to you.

If you are a parent of a typical kid: How would you feel if I joked about my kid's disabilities?

If you are a parent of a kid with special needs: How would you feel if I joked about my kid's disabilities?


  1. I can totally understand why the other blogger felt awkward after the comment. If it were another mom of a special needs kid, she would have had no problem yukking it up with you. But for someone who doesn't go through what you do, they don't feel comfortable with doing this.

    That being said, I think it's totally fine to have a sense of humor about your situation. It would probably put some people more at ease. But not everyone. It's just that they don't know how to respond to something like that!

  2. I also wonder about that - my three month old has a form of dwarfism, and I do joke about it a bit - but then I wonder how much is too much too... Someone asked me what the difference was between my second daughter and my first, who is average height. I said "At 6 weeks old, the difference was about 6 inches" hehe

    Sometimes you just HAVE to laugh about it, it's better to be light hearted than down in the dumps about it right?

  3. I think a light joke like that would make the person feel comfortable. I joke about my son and how he can't deal with change quickly, all the time. People seem to appreciate that I'm not uptight about a face of life.

    I think it was OK, Ellen..I really do.

  4. I say LAUGH! One of my closest friends and I haved shared so many pee-in-your-pants moments joking about some of the hardest stuff we deal with.

  5. Actually laughed when I read it, even though I was expecting a denunciation of such jokes rather than an actual example! I think there's nothing wrong with it. But people who don't have close contact with special needs kids may not get it. Still, it's not them who have to be protected, is it? So go for it, I say. Have fun.

  6. I think that people are trained to act like special needs don't exist on some level. That makes it hard for them to laugh because they can't laugh at something that doesn't exist, right?

    Hubs and are have total gallows humor and our friends and family are starting to pick it up a little too. I won't even type the stuff we say at home but we've been making conversations uncomfortable since 2007. And I'm fine with that. I'd rather be Miss Inappropriate Joker than Miss Self-Righteous and Huffy.

  7. i make the same jokes :) but, i also sometimes get the same awkward pauses. my son is still nonverbal and i've made jokes about it being nice that i don't have to worry so much about letting a bad word slip as he's not going to be repeating it, or that we have fewer fights as he doesn't say or sign no yet (most kids his age say no to everything apparently?).

    not everyone knows how to take it when i joke like that, but we HAVE to have a sense of humor. if parents of kids who don't have special powers can joke about their kids, so can we. not everyone will get it when we joke, but that's ok.

  8. The special needs in our family run to a really light form of SPD and ADHD, so it really doesn't compare with your life, but I prefer to make light of things where I can. I love a laugh, and it's not a laugh at the child's expense! It's just a good-natured jab.

    If you take every problem in life too seriously, you're going to need mental help. I say go with the funny, because sometimes it *is* funny. Some people don't have the most well-developed sense of humor and won't get it. Not your problem.

  9. oh, Ellen! Don't beat yourself up. Chalk it up to a socially awkward moment and forget about it. Know what happens to me a lot? When people hear I have two toddlers 13 months apart (and pregnant, too!) they inevitably say..."OMG! They must be running everywhere!". I can't win if I say, "I older son is disabled and not walking" or if I made a joke. Either way I'd be met with an awkward social moment. Mainly for the other person who doesn't quite know what to say.

    we all know you would never diss Max. Xoxo

  10. You have to have a sense of humor about life. I think you know that. I think that everyone else has already beat me to the meat of it (not MY meat, but you get what I mean), as far as all the Truths about The Incident, which for some reason, in my mental picture, since it was in NY, the person who you stopped short in her conversational tracks with your comment looked like Elaine Benes from Seinfeld.

    Which of course made it even funnier to me, in case you were curious...:P

  11. I am right there with you on this one. I am definitely one to make light of serious situations. I can see how the other mom would have felt a little uneasy about laughing along with you. That just isn't politically correct, is it? But I think all Moms, special needs or not, need to have a sense of humor. It is a matter of survival!

  12. I've raised three kids with special needs, some more special than others, and I do joke about them, but hopefully not in a hurtful way.

    I recently made a new friend who has two HUGE (6'4") sons, both with Autism. She and I are both single, and believe me, the challenges intensify when you don't have someone to help keep perspective (like how much property damage our kids do, unintentionally, of course).

    Some of our text messages are pretty funny, but it's such a relief to have someone get it.

    Maybe part of our job as special parents is to help typical parents lighten up and understand that we aren't super heroes (most of the time), just dealing with life as it comes...

    There's a big difference between laughing over the painful things and putting our kids down because of their unique challenges. Right?

    And the gin probably didn't hurt, either!

  13. Without gallows humor I don't know where I'd be right now. That said, I've been racking my brain trying to think of a time I made a joke to someone who just didn't get it, and it has occurred to me that I really don't get out much! The people I see on a regular basis know me and my kid well enough to not be offended, but I seriously can't remember the last time I mingled with new people. Oh well.

  14. Overall, I say it's a safe bet and laughter is sometimes just the best medicine around. I do agree with the Cheryl D.'s comment that she probably just didn't know what to say in response.

    That said, my one year old is blind and sometimes I can't even tally how many times the hubby and I kick around a comment or two (or twelve). ;) Gotta keep it light--*see* what I mean? ;)


  15. We make jokes frequently because sometimes, the truth is just kind of funny. I find myself making the most jokes when out with other moms and the conversation is just so far from my reality ( summer camps, travel soccer and the diving board are my favorites) that unless I make a joke, I am left out and silent and no doubt feeling sorry for myself.

    Our Max has begun to make some jokes about himself too and it is just so very funny. Not too long ago, he was trying to stand up in therapy and fell over flat on his face...he looked up from the floor and said, "well, then, guess that's enough of that for today!!"

  16. I agree with all the above. We need humour and sometimes folk just don't get it. As a Dad of a disabled boy I laughed out loud at the joke. We joke about Ashley all the time and we joke with him too. He can't talk but he can clown around and make us laugh - you'd have to see his Speed Crawling, I'll try and video it sometime.
    The comment Katy from above about pretending disability doesn't exist makes laughing about it hard for hose folk. Maybe they think it's offensive for disability to be joked about. I think it all comes down to intent. If you mean harm it's not funny. Try watching Josh Blue sometime and not laugh. Funny guy.

  17. Being a mom of two special needs kiddos, I find that I can make jokes no problem. And if I start it and others join in, that is typically okay. And if I heard you, I would probably laugh along since I'm there too.

    What bothers me is when others make generalized jesting about special needs cases and they are off color and inappropriate.

  18. Joking about special needs is sort of my modus operandi, but there are definitely lines that can't be crossed. I think what you said was totally fine...obviously the "line" is that you never want to be perceived as making fun of your own child. And we can definitely say more to others that are "in the club" than to others that might think we are just batshit crazy.

  19. I guess you could call me wishy-washy with this one. I agree that laughing and smiling about something is better than crying over it so making light of a situation makes sense. However, making a 'joke' about my SN child is nothing I ever want to be a part of, especially if it would create an awkward situation for someone else like it did for the fellow blogger you were chatting with.

    I don't know. We all have to do what makes getting through this crazy SN life a little easier. If joking is your thing, then joke on.

  20. Really, it would have been so much worse if you had tried to turn the situation serious at that point, and there is no need to. It was a light-hearted, silly joke. Don't feel bad about it. We make jokes like that all the time. Looks like LOTS of us do. If that makes us bad parents, at least we're in good company!

    1. I got to this blog because I was looking for jokes on the subject after 32 years of raising such a child I think it's a great idea to have a joke page

  21. Ellen, I agree with evrey one here that we all do it. We have to and at least according to Sally - (the article I posted yesterday) it's okay from her perspective. She is an adult that wrote a letter to here parents and said it's okay to laugh.

    That said, we live in a politically correct society and we've trained people to not laugh "AT" appropiately so. What we haven't done is trained people that it is okay to laugh "WITH." The problem for most people is when they start out laughing "WITH" you they are affraid that they will be preceived as laughing "AT" you or in this case worse "AT" your son. That is likely the reason you got the uncomfortable feeling. That said there isn't any reason to change or worry about what you said but just an oportunity to educate others about how to appropiatly interact with you and your son. Heck as a dad I'm partially defined by my ablity to joke an make lite of various situations and I'll be honest I don't care too much if I make others uncomfortable, but thats part of the liberty of being a guy.

  22. A friend and I were talking about this a few days ago-her son has CP and other issues going on. One day at the playground someone asked her "aren't you worried about him with his wheelchair? I mean, he could fall out and get brain damage!" My friend is incredibly deadpan and her sense of humor is very dry so when she said "well if that's the worst that's going to happen, go for it, he's already GOT brain damage" The other woman was shocked and walked away.
    I thought it was hilarious-but maybe it's because I deal with Gabe's disability every day and KNOW that if I don't laugh about it I am going to cry about it-does that make sense?

  23. I personally think joking is never a bad thing - because it is a marvelous quality to be able to laugh at yourself. And to be able to laugh at even the not so funny things in life. Without humor, what is the point? If someone doesn't "get it" I actually feel bad for them, because a life without some lighthearted joshing would be so dull.

  24. I read this post super early this morning on my blackberry and I've been thinking about it for a while.

    Here's to joking and laughter. sometimes I think it's the one thing that keeps me sane. Relatively speaking, of course.

  25. I agree with everyone too - laughter and a sense of humor has helped me and my husband through a lot with raising our T-man and his little brother JD.

  26. I have both a special needs child and a child w/o them. People seem not to know exactly how to react about anything having to do with special needs, let alone a joke. I probably wouldn't have a had a second thought about it if the joke came from a Mom of a kid with special powers... but if someone w/out said it, I'm not too sure how I would react.

    All in all, maybe you are thinking too much!

  27. See I don't even think that was even a joke more an honest response. It's the truth! Might as well enjoy the gifts of a disability with a sense of humor.

  28. So this kid with special needs walks into a bar and....

    He, he. Actually, Maria, I don't think I am thinking too much, given that I basically let all of you take over this post! :) The topic's sparked a really interesting discussion.

    I get why the other blogger felt awkward, too. But she is totally cool and subsequently asked me if Max acted obnoxious in other ways, to which I said, "Yes!"

    Obviously, the tricky thing here for me is that I'm not laughing at myself (I am a master of self-deprecation), I'm making a joke about my kid. It's not like joking with Dave, which we do on occasion. Although I freely joke about Sabrina and her 'tude to people, so I guess it's fair to treat Max like any other kid. You know, inclusion and all. Sabrina doesn't hold back: She likes to imitate Max's words. Max thinks that is a laugh riot and cracks up, and then we all end up cracking up.

    Chrissi: That story about your friend at the playground made me smile.

    Jana: You need to get out more and flex your gallows humor muscle, girl!

    Ken: Nope, not Elaine Benes, but yes, a Seinfeld-ian incident.

  29. I think that as a mom with a special needs child I can joke about my child but someone else can't so I don't see your joking about your child being a problem.

    I can see how others may not know how to react because they don't want to offend you. At least they are trying to be sensitive

  30. As a mom of a child with special needs, I laughed at your joke....I think it's so terribly important that we can joke and have a sense of humor about our lives. Now if you cracked a joke about MY son, I don't know what I'd

    Keep smiling!

  31. I totally understand you making lighthearted jokes. You're the parent, you have his best interests at heart.
    That being said I am totally defensive when some random person makes jokes about the "short bus". I have heard those jokes from all kinds of people including those who really should be more sensitive (one time from a nurse). For some reason these commments make me really angry. Okay, rant over, probably belonged elsewhere, not here.

  32. Ellen,

    Something occurred to me while reading the comments. I'm wondering if maybe the other blogger (who may or may not have typical kids) has had some other experience with a child who is non-verbal (say a sibling or something.)

    I know if I joke around about Austin to lighten the mood that is one thing...but if a stranger were to make light of "deafness" or something like that in a casual conversation I might be a bit surprised and taken aback. For me that would hit a nerve, growing up a lot of people made fun of my brothers for being deaf. Does that make any sense?

    So maybe she was not uptight (or maybe she was) just tossing out the possibility that you may have hit on something personal for her too without knowing it.

    Just because everyone "knows" about Max, doesn't mean that you know everything about their personal family history.

    Either way I don't think you did anything wrong or she did anything wrong...just possibly bad timing. And yes, sometimes you gotta laugh -- but you also need to know your audience and vice versa.

    If it had been one of us (your readers or friends) you know we would have totally joked right along with you.

  33. i can joke about it. my husband can joke about it. our nurses who live it with us on a daily basis can joke about it (but don't!) my friends who have kids in very similar boats can joke about it...but anyone joking allowed!

    we have to laugh...but for me it's a fine line when someone else makes the joke who's not in the club. therefore i tend not to make jokes in front of the "others." :)

  34. I had my 6th grade daughter read your post. She didn't see your comment as a joke, just a funny statement. Just what I thought when I read it -- you gave me a chuckle, nothing more, nothing less. I tell folks all the time that my son is a great Christmas shopper because he won't tell anyone what I bought.

    When my dad and great-aunt were still alive, we would joke about how folks w/ Alzhiemers always remembered the question, but never the answer.

    I HAVE to keep the moments light when I can, otherwise I will go under.

    That said, I agree with the comments about how I don't like other of folks (who don't know Luke) to make such remarks. I am also very careful about where I make comments -- NOT in front of my son. He just turned 8 last week and most 2nd graders still don't get the art of joking.

  35. I think humor is usually an opening to understanding, and it at least lets the other person know that they don't have to tiptoe around the subject. Certainly my hubby and I have used black humor to get us through some really tough times. The bottom line is that everyone was talking about how obnoxious kids at age 5 can be -- so they were already making light of what other kids say. You simply added the special needs take on it.

  36. Why is that a "bad" joke? Any humor that has a foundation in truth is REAL and relatable humor. In a lighthearted way, you explained your reality and let the other person know you weren't devastated by it.

    People need to lighten up. Sometimes PC--and the FEAR of being "un-PC"--have been taken too far, to the point where sincere communication suffers.

    I'll repeat myself--I go for the INTENT of the speaker, the CONTEXT. If the remarks aren't meant to be mean or cruel, I don't take them that way, even if they're clumsy or "un-PC" in any way.

  37. Another great subject to post on!

    As an adult man with cerebral palsy, I often use humor about my disability when addressing crowds. It puts people at ease and makes me more approachable to people who might not ever ask a direct question to someone regarding their disability.

    That being said, if I am going to use humor on myself, I better be ready to receive the humor back from people who might laugh about the way I run, walk or stand. It goes both ways.

    Just my opinion.

    John W. Quinn
    Author, Someone Like Me; An Unlikely Story of Challenge and Triumph Over Cerbral Palsy

  38. This comment has been removed by the author.

  39. If it weren't for humor I don't know how I would get through most days. Life is too short not to laugh at every opportunity. And hey, if you're going to laugh about it someday, might as well laugh about it now, right??? :-)

    And I think it's good to show the world that we "Special Powers" moms can have a sense of humor. We're not all staying home feeling sorry for ourselves or anything.

  40. My #1 favorite comedian, Josh Blue has CP. He completely eliminates the awkwardness in his dealings with non-SN people, by constantly making light of his impairment. (my favorite is his description of having to pee in a cup for a drug test) I think we HAVE to make light of things. It doesn't downgrade the seriousness, it makes it easier to deal with.
    I think the other chick just didn't know what the appropriate response would be. She's afraid that anything she could say next might sound lame or insensitive or whatever. The best course of action is to then laugh heartily at the akward silence. Because that's funny too!

  41. We'd joke around with anyone else, so why would our child be an exception? (You remember what my husband lovingly calls our son, right? He is already coming up with obnoxious nicknames for our child due in April. "Normal" or not, s/he will not be spared!)

    I think the key, which others have mentioned, is that we're not laughing AT them. :) Joke on.

  42. One of my most common phrases lately is "If you can't laugh about it you'll just cry, so you might as well laugh!" I constantly talk about how I feel lucky I don't have to chase Jack around since he doesn't crawl or walk still (at 2) But, I also have a pretty dark sense of humor so that kind of joking doesn't turn me off. I say, laugh whenever you can, and if folks around you don't get's ok. They're still learning! :-)

  43. I think that you have to be able to joke when it feels right to you, otherwise you will go crazy. Yes, sometimes it will make the other person uncomfortable and other times it might open them up to talk to you a little more. I do this a lot when I compare notes with other moms because my son isn't mobile. If its your situation you have every right to joke about it!

  44. Humor gets us through life. Especially about dark subjects and places.

    If I'm not supposed to joke about the tough stuff in my life, I am in huge trouble.

    Loved having you last night. So glad you had fun. And Hendrick's. Yum.

  45. I've been in the same position thousands of times - whether I'm joking about our two special needs children or just being myself - and I always choose to laugh, as that gets me through another day. I can understand why the recipient had an awkward pause because I've given them to plenty of people, but at the same time isn't humor one of the simplest ways we can open doors and create awareness of our differences, of our kids' differences? You see it all the time with professional comedians, and I appreciate how silly we all are, if we choose to let ourselves be. Great post!

  46. Sweetie - I don't know if it is right, but I do it all the time. Usually because I think people feel awkward just talking about her and so I try to lighten things up for them so they don't feel so badly. My dd has CP, is non-verbal and in a wheelchair with Autism thrown in there because... well, I guess that just wasn't enough. She, like Max, is also an absolute joy and often a total pill ;-) I am also a single mom. When people get all sympathetic with me and say "Oh my, it must be so hard." I often come back with "Not really - she doesn't talk back and I don't have to chase her around" ;-) I've never had anyone chastise me for it and I think for the most part they are thankful that the ice was broken on the subject. I find they are much more open to asking questions after that to find out more about her.
    I would never, ever do something like call her a demeaning name however, and have learned to not even talk about her disabilities in front of her - I would never underestimate what she comprehends.
    Hope that helps!

  47. If I don't crack jokes about my son's special neeeds then I cry. I would rather laugh then spend my days in tears. It's just more enjoyable.
    I have had a few people comment that I'm horrible for making jokes about my son's issues but most of the time when I explain that if I don't laugh then I cry they understand. Besides my son just doesn't get teasing and the more we tease the easier it is for him to accept. He is almost 15 and actually made a joke a few days ago. That made me cry!
    There seem to be a few holier than though people that feel I shouldn't tease or joke no matter what and I'm a horrible parent for doing so.
    But those people just don't understand or get it like they claim. If they did I don't think they would be so judgemental!

  48. An astute other person would take her cue from you and chuckle with you. In the business so to speak, I would do exactly that with your joke.

    If it is not your responsibility or need to make the other person feel okay, say whatever you want. At least you got a post out of the story - and a great party!

    BTW I have had Logitech wireless mice (mouse - plural) for years that have worked flawlessly.

  49. We joke about the special needs within our own family and I can't imagine doing it any other way. You have to look on the bright side or all you'll do is cry. I have noticed that often other people don't seem to know what to do/say when I make jokes about Sunshine's special needs. Maybe they're afraid to laugh because it might sound like they were making fun?

    I think it's similar to other social situations where you're either "insiders" or "outsiders" (such as relations between different races). There are jokes you can make as an insider but if you're an outsider you worry that you can't make them.

    With special needs, I think that by making the joke we are inviting the person in - but they may not always realize it.

  50. @Rachel - I think the last part of your comment is very well put.

    We make jokes all the time about everything. Somehow I'm at the butt of most of them (I have some ADD issues). Laughter is what really helps to hold our family together. Xander's flapping and spinning, Spencer's obnoxiousism, Andy's cynicism, my lack of focus...we're 4 clowns living in a 3 ring circus.

  51. We TOTALY get where you are coming from. I think sometimes we scare people joking around. However, when have been where we have, everything else is gravy....

    After our son's first heart surgery, he had a six month hospital stay. He couldn't stay off the vent and nobody could figure out why. Finally, they figured out he was refluxing and basically drowning everytime we fed him. They had to do surgery to fix it, but since he had a stroke & seizures they had to get the OK from a neuro.

    This guy came into our room and while Christopher was trying to extubate himself with his toes, proceeded to tell us to "Let him go & start over. He will be a vegetable and a burden" Yeah, he was "escorted" out. Ahem...

    Anyway, a few weeks later we were discharged. Our first follow-up happened to be in Halloween day, so we took Christopher to the hospital in a costume (not his offiial one). We dressed him like a turnip - both because of the above comment and because he has NO IV access. :) Our nurses "got it" - Dr. Personality did not. LOL!

    I think there are some things that people either get or not.....if they don't, oh well. Those are porbably the same people who probably have no clue what it is like to raise a child with special needs.

    Joke away! :)

    Steph and CHristopher

  52. Dear Ellen :)

    I relate to you completely! I pray, by now, you have ceased *any and all* self-flagellation, and I'm sorry you suffered even 1 minute over the incident - although I'm absolutely positive I would beat myself for an elephantine slice of time...

    Recently, my husband and I attended an IEP meeting for our 6-yr-old (no Wednesday Night "great parties" for us in recent memory, although we do celebrate here at Home, as often as possible.) :)
    As the speech therapist and the classroom teacher were heatedly impressing upon us the urgent need for our babe to talk, and the burning necessity for increased communication, so that we would know when he needs the bathroom (now why didn't *we* think of all this?!), my husband blurted out, "At this point, I wouldn't care if he said, "I need to take a shit!"
    He continued, "I don't even mind if he keeps saying those words, as long as he tells us."

    Stifled giggles filled the air, and an errant chortle excaped
    from the end of the corner where the pristine, angelic-looking speech teacher sat. Red colored every face, as my husband is British, to boot, and the all-female team adores his accent (we're in my upstate NY)...

    We need to laugh; nobody understands except other parents; please don't ever be mean to yourself over such an occurrence.
    Our children know how much we love them. Max is extremely fortunate to have you as his mother. You are love. :) <3

  53. One of my favorite blogs is Big Daddy Autism, which is, in his words, "Tales from the lighter side of raising a kid with autism. Now with 87% more humor!" He's funny but the love for his kid also comes shining through.

  54. I think he's your child, you can speak about him as you wish. (You didn't say anything awful....) I also think that humor is wonderful thing and can definitely help lighten difficult situations. So no, it wouldn't offend me. :-)

    Just found your blog a few days ago, read all about Max and I have to tell you that he is so perfect and so-so cute and such a blessing (I'm sure you already know these things!!) I'm so amazed at how far he has come...I know it's not what you expected but he really is precious. Enjoy every single bit of him!!

  55. I think we have to joke about it. If we lose our sense of humor, our sanity will be the next thing to go. I've made the same comment when my friends complain about their kid swearing in church. I like to think it helps put people at ease to know we can find the humor in our lives and we aren't sitting around feeling sorry for ourselves.


Thanks for sharing!

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