Gelotophobia & Autism12 min read


Many autistic people have gelo­to­phobia—a severe fear of gelato!


“Uhm, no. I actu­ally love gelato” you will prob­ably say. And you might fur­ther insist, “I am not a gelo­to­phobe!”

You prob­ably are though! But no wor­ries; you are in good com­pany!


Gelotophobia

So what actu­ally is gelo­to­phobia? Pronounced ji-lat-ê-fo-bi-ê‑agalos is a Greek term meaning ‘laughter’, and phobia, as you prob­ably know, means ‘fear’. So no, gelo­to­phobia doesn’t actu­ally have any­thing to do with gelato—or indeed any other type of ice cream.

Gelotophobia is a social phobia,* gen­er­ally described as a fear of being ridiculed or laughed at. But it’s actu­ally more com­pli­cated than that. And con­sid­ering many of us have alex­ithymia, you wouldn’t nec­es­sarily con­sciously expe­ri­ence it as fear. It’s not nec­es­sarily a phobia that pre­oc­cu­pies the mind con­stantly, but it may often come up in social sit­u­a­tions.

* The con­vic­tion of being ridicu­lous, strange, pecu­liar, etc. in the eyes of one’s social part­ners, and the sub­se­quent expec­ta­tion of being ridiculed, is what dis­tin­guishes gelo­to­phobia from social phobia in its broad def­i­n­i­tion.1)The fear of being laughed at: Individual and group dif­fer­ences in Gelotophobia

Gelotophobia is the mis­in­ter­pre­ta­tion of laughing or smiling of an inter­ac­tion partner as a per­son­ally aver­sive, dep­re­ca­tory, and denun­ci­ating act.

In the place of what may have been intended as playful teasing or joking, the indi­vidual per­ceives the laughter and smiling of another as a per­sonal vendetta aimed at putting them down.2)Gelotophobia and High-Functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder

It has been sug­gested that this fear and shame-bound anx­iety is a long-term con­se­quence of intense, repeated and trau­matic per­sonal expe­ri­ences of:3)Gelotophobia and High-Functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder4)The Pinocchio Complex: Overcoming the fear of laughter

  • Having been laughed at in the past.
  • Having been the target of mockery.
  • Not being taken seri­ously by others.

Laughter is gen­er­ally con­ta­gious, and it tends to lead to pos­i­tive emo­tions (joy, exhil­a­ra­tion, etc.), but of course, no one likes to be laughed at or made fun of. The latter leads to neg­a­tive emo­tions. Most people dis­like being laughed at to some degree, and so gelo­to­phobia con­sti­tutes a spec­trum, ranging from having no fear at all, to bor­der­line, to pro­nounced or extreme gelo­to­phobia.


Causes

Gelotophobia can gen­er­ally be traced back to child­hood:

This fear can be traced back to early child­hood expe­ri­ences of intense and repeated expo­sure to “put-down,” mockery and ridicule in the course of social­iza­tion.5)Gelotophobia: The fear of being laughed at

However, gelo­to­phobia can in prin­ciple emerge in var­ious stages of life:

  • Infancy — Development of pri­mary shame failure to develop an inter­per­sonal bridge (e.g. unsup­portive infant–caregiver inter­ac­tions).
  • Childhood/youth — Repeated trau­matic expe­ri­ences of not being taken seri­ously or being laughed at and/or ridiculed (e.g. bul­lying).
  • Adulthood — Intense trau­matic expe­ri­ence of being laughed at and/or ridiculed (e.g. mockery).

Gelotophobia in autistic people

Ironically, the way I started this answer may have invoked gelo­to­phobia in some people. If I did, my apology!

Many autistic people do indeed expe­ri­ence mockery growing up, as well as trauma. Due to the fact that many of us have chal­lenges under­standing when a joke has been told—even at higher levels of intel­li­gence and gen­eral functioning—combined with sen­si­tivity to emo­tional dis­tress, there is a high co-occurrence of gelo­to­phobia and high-functioning autism.

Research from 2011 by Andrea C. Samson et al. indi­cates that 45% of autistic people tested are gelo­to­phobes, whereas only 6% of neu­rotyp­i­cals have gelo­to­phobia. This is the highest per­centage ever found in the lit­er­a­ture!6)Teasing, ridi­culing and the rela­tion to the fear of being laughed at in indi­vid­uals with Asperger’s syn­drome

In a paper from 2018, Geraldine Leader et al. point out that pre­vious research found that:7)Gelotophobia and High-Functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder

  • 40% of indi­vid­uals with eating dis­or­ders exceeded the threshold for a slight form of gelo­to­phobia.
  • 35.7% of indi­vid­uals with per­son­ality dis­or­ders.8)The fear of being laughed at among psy­chi­atric patients
  • 24.5% of shame-bound neu­rotics.9)Who is gelo­to­phobic? Assessment cri­teria for the fear

So autistic people have gelo­to­phobia more often than those with per­son­ality dis­or­ders and eating dis­or­ders, which of course sug­gests that gelo­to­phobia is an important—yet understudied—phenomenon in autism. The research from 2011 also indi­cated that people with Asperger syn­drome are:

  • Less able to laugh at them­selves (gelo­tophilia), but;
  • Enjoy laughing at others (katage­las­ti­cism) to the same extent as con­trols do.

Playful banter

Laughter at times can have cruel inten­tions which can hurt people. But when friends play­fully mock each other, it can be a form of proso­cial behavior, where the person being play­fully teased can then respond with humor, which tends to lead to more pos­i­tive emo­tions and proso­cial behavior. A person with gelo­to­phobia, how­ever, does not engage in a pos­i­tive way, but instead reacts with anger or hurt, which pre­vents any proso­cial ben­e­fits from occur­ring.

Why does this happen? Well, research from 2008 by Tracey Platt indi­cates that people with gelo­to­phobia are unable to dis­tin­guish between the pos­i­tive expe­ri­ence or inter­pre­ta­tion of being laughed at from episodes of neg­a­tive ridi­culing and dep­re­ca­tion.10)Emotional responses to ridicule and teasing: Should gelo­to­phobes react dif­fer­ently? Failure to dis­tin­guish between playful banter and actual mockery and/or bul­lying can thus lead to a neg­a­tive inter­pre­ta­tion of well-intended actions.

Like research from 2009 by pro­fessor in per­son­ality psy­chology and diag­nos­tics Willibald Ruch et al. indi­cates, gelo­to­phobic indi­vid­uals do not tend to per­ceive laughter and smiling as signs of friend­li­ness or expres­sions of mirth and pos­i­tive affect (i.e. the ten­dency to expe­ri­ence pos­i­tive sen­sa­tions, emo­tions, and sen­ti­ments).11)How do gelo­to­phobes inter­pret laughter in ambiguous sit­u­a­tions? An exper­i­mental val­i­da­tion of the con­cept

Alternatively, gelo­to­phobic indi­vid­uals expe­ri­ence all forms of laughter and smiling from their social part­ners as mali­cious and as a means to put them down.12)Gelotophobia and High-Functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder So playful teasing and inten­tional ridicule are thus inter­preted through the same schematic rep­re­sen­ta­tion; being the butt of crit­i­cism and deri­sion.13)Emotional responses to ridicule and teasing: Should gelo­to­phobes react dif­fer­ently?


Fear response

According to research from 2008 by Willibald Ruch and René Proyer, gelo­to­phobes are irra­tionally and incon­ceiv­ably pre­oc­cu­pied with the belief and the sub­se­quent fear that they are being laughed at by others in all inter­ac­tive domains.14)Who is gelo­to­phobic? Assessment cri­teria for the fear

The afore­men­tioned research from 2008 by Tracey Platt’s indi­cates that gelo­to­phobic people’s emo­tional response pat­tern con­sists pri­marily of shame, anger, and fear, whereby even laughter of a pleasant nature is per­ceived uni­formly as neg­a­tive. These emo­tional response pat­terns come up regard­less of whether the laughing sit­u­a­tion is a playful sce­nario or under mean-spirited cir­cum­stances.15)Emotional responses to ridicule and teasing: Should gelo­to­phobes react dif­fer­ently?

Additional studies have reported that gelo­to­phobes become very vig­i­lant upon encoun­tering episodes of laughter from others.16)Emotional responses to ridicule and teasing: Should gelo­to­phobes react dif­fer­ently?17)The Pinocchio Complex: Overcoming the fear of laughter They become easily sus­pi­cious, as they are of the assump­tion that any ambiguous laughter is directed at them in a threat­ening, intim­i­dating manner.18)Fearing humor? Gelotophobia: The fear of being laughed at: Introduction and overview

Psychotherapist and psy­cho­an­a­lyst Michael Titze—who is a pio­neer in ther­a­peutic humor and gelo­tology (the study of laughter)—refers to the effects of gelo­to­phobia as the Pinocchio Complex:19)The Pinocchio Complex | HumorCare e.V.

The Pinocchio Complex is a phe­nom­enon that refers to those with gelo­to­phobia. These people have never learned to appre­ciate humor and laughter pos­i­tively. I see this con­di­tion as being anal­o­gous to Pinocchio who was a mar­i­onette or puppet made of wood.

In the phys­ical sphere, many emo­tions man­i­fest them­selves in our mus­cles. We com­mu­ni­cate by the way we carry and present our­selves. When fear is expe­ri­enced every being gets stiff and develops mus­cular ten­sion. This is for instance the case when a mouse is con­fronted by a snake and has no chance to either dis­ap­pear or attack the snake.

The fight or flight responses pro­vide the oppor­tu­nity to attack or flee. These are adap­tive mech­a­nisms that have sur­vival value. But there is a third sce­nario that unfolds when there is no chance to run or fight: that is to develop a state of mus­cular ten­sion.

So it’s the freeze response as a result of gelo­to­phobia that Titze char­ac­ter­izes as the Pinocchio Complex. I don’t know if I agree that people with gelo­to­phobia nec­es­sarily never learned to appre­ciate humor and laughter pos­i­tively, how­ever. Here is Martin’s per­spec­tive:

I don’t know if I would nec­es­sarily qualify for a gelo­to­phobia diag­nosis, but when Natalie started writing this article, she engaged in playful banter with me about the meaning of gelo­to­phobia, and I got dis­tressed and dys­reg­u­lated. So when Natalie stated ear­lier that the start of this post may iron­i­cally bring forth gelo­to­phobia, it’s actu­ally a warning based on how I responded to her playful banter.

What sur­prises me is that, whether or not I am fully con­scious of it, a level of fear must be coming up, because I get angry, and usu­ally fear lies at the foun­da­tion of anger. In this case, fear of being ridiculed. But I wouldn’t say I haven’t learned to appre­ciate humor and laughter pos­i­tively. I love humor and wit, and I laugh making people laugh with humor. I am not humor­less or grey, which almost seems to be Titze’s impli­ca­tion.

So despite appre­ci­ating humor and laughter around me and in myself, some­times I do mis­in­ter­pret playful banter for mockery. When I think I am being mocked, I feel shame, I sup­pose because it’s a sub­con­scious reminder of all the times I have been mocked in the past. But then I also feel ashamed when Natalie explains to me that she was just joking, and how could I mis­in­ter­pret her inten­tions so severely? Why would she ever mock me? That’s just not what she is like. So it’s irra­tional,* and being irra­tional makes me feel inad­e­quate, which brings about shame. This is where being self-critical comes in.

Willibald Ruch and René Proyer state that gelo­to­phobic indi­vid­uals believe that all laughter is aimed at putting them down and making them feel they are a ridicu­lous object worthy of derision—regardless of whether there is a rational reason for this deri­sion, or if it amounts to mere para­noia.20)Who is gelo­to­phobic? Assessment cri­teria for the fear

To read about self-criticism, have a look at the post below.

Self-compassion & self-criticism

Hypervigilance towards laughter

The under­lying fear of being ridiculed results in hyper­vig­i­lance, which includes an exag­ger­ated focus on detecting activity (e.g. always trying to be aware of whether or not you are being ridiculed, and searching for indi­ca­tions thereof). This hyper­vig­i­lance increases anx­iety, and the whole endeavor can easily leave one exhausted. The more exhausted you are, the less likely you are to engage in social inter­ac­tions. Michael Titze writes in his 2009 paper:21)Gelotophobia: The fear of being laughed at

Gelotophobes con­stantly fear being screened by others for evi­dence of ridicu­lous­ness. Thus, they care­fully avoid sit­u­a­tions in which they feel exposed to others.

Gelotophobia at its extreme, there­fore, involves a pro­nounced para­noid ten­dency, a marked sen­si­tivity to offense, and a resulting social with­drawal.


Gelotophobe physiology

Gelotophobes also show phys­i­o­log­ical reac­tions towards laughter. In a study pub­lished in 2014, bio­log­ical psy­chology pro­fessor Ilona Papoušek et al. found that indi­vid­uals with gelo­to­phobia showed heart rate decel­er­a­tion in response to laughter:22)Laughter as a social rejec­tion cue: Gelotophobia and tran­sient car­diac responses to other per­sons’ laughter and insult

Individuals with gelo­to­phobia showed marked heart rate decel­er­a­tion in response to the laughter stim­ulus, pos­sibly indi­cating a “freezing-like” response.

They also found car­diac responses to anger provo­ca­tion (with the use of overtly insulting state­ments), which indi­cates height­ened aggres­sive anger in response to cumu­lated social threat.23)Laughter as a social rejec­tion cue: Gelotophobia and tran­sient car­diac responses to other per­sons’ laughter and insult


Am I a gelotophobe?

To see whether you might have gelo­to­phobia, check if the fol­lowing describes you:

  • You avoid social sit­u­a­tions in order to avoid being laughed at or ridiculed.
  • You worry that others feel that you do not engage with them in a warm, friendly way, or;
  • You worry that others deem you humor­less.
  • You struggle to know what to say to people in a “nat­ural” way.*
  • You have low self-esteem due to feeling incom­pe­tent in social sit­u­a­tions.†
  • You feel your body get­ting tense when people are talking and laughing. As a result, your move­ments may appear wooden and stiff (the Pinocchio Complex) rather than being relaxed and nat­ural.
  • You think you are not a lively person, are not spon­ta­neous, and do not expe­ri­ence many joyful moments in your daily life.*
  • You worry that you look ridicu­lous to others.

* Of course, this may also be due to often co-occurring alex­ithymia or autism itself.
† This may be due to per­sonal traumas and self-criticism, both of which seem to be quite preva­lent in autism.

If at least 4 of these state­ments apply to you, you prob­ably have gelo­to­phobia. If you want to be more cer­tain, per­haps you can find the GELOPH<15> some­where, which is a survey instru­ment on gelo­to­phobia, con­sisting of 15 ques­tions. I have not been able to track down where you can do the test online, but Psychology Today has an article up which fea­tures a slightly altered* ver­sion of the GELOPH:24)Afraid of Being Laughed At? You’re Far From Alone | Psychology Today

  1. When people laugh in my pres­ence I get sus­pi­cious.
  2. I avoid dis­playing myself in public because I fear that people could become aware of my inse­cu­rity and could make fun of me.
  3. When strangers laugh in my pres­ence I often relate this to me per­son­ally.
  4. It is dif­fi­cult for me to make eye con­tact because I fear to be assessed in a dis­paraging way.
  5. When others make joking remarks about me I feel par­a­lyzed.
  6. I con­trol myself in order not to attract neg­a­tive atten­tion so I do not make a ridicu­lous impres­sion.
  7. I believe that I invol­un­tarily make a funny impres­sion on others.
  8. Although I fre­quently feel lonely, I have the ten­dency not to share social activ­i­ties in order to pro­tect myself from deri­sion.
  9. When I have made an embar­rassing impres­sion some­where, I avoid the place there­after.
  10. If I did not fear making a fool of myself I would speak much more in public.
  11. If someone has teased me in the past I cannot deal freely with him from that point on.
  12. It takes me very long to recover from having been laughed at.
  13. While dancing I feel uneasy because I am con­vinced that those watching me assess me as being ridicu­lous.
  14. Unless I’m careful, I’m at risk to attract neg­a­tive atten­tion and appear pecu­liar to others.
  15. When I have made a fool of myself in front of others I grow com­pletely stiff and lose my ability to behave nor­mally.

Rate your­self on a 4‑point scale for each ques­tion. What I have not been able not find is what the threshold score is to qualify for gelo­to­phobia. Let me know if you know where to find this infor­ma­tion!


What you can do about having gelo­to­phobia, I might cover in a second post if there is interest. But a good start is to be mindful of your responses to others and the feel­ings that come up, and to show self-compassion in gen­eral, so you may learn and grow, rather than putting your­self down based on per­ceived deficits.


This post was orig­i­nally written by Natalie Engelbrecht & Martin Silvertant
on Embrace ASD: Gelotophobia & autism | Embrace ASD

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8 Comments

  1. This is and always has been a big deal to me.

  2. My ques­tion is, could you sort of out­grow this? I was bul­lied hor­ribly in school (diag­nosed as an adult), and for a long time I was very afraid of people laughing around me, just as this article describes. But with time and with some good social expe­ri­ences and with gaining more con­fi­dence by knowing that I’m not broken after all, it’s soft­ened.
    I’m still sen­si­tive to being embar­rassed, ridiculed, laughed at, etc, but it’s not as bad as it was.

    1. Author

      You can cer­tainly out­grow it! The inter­pre­ta­tion of people laughing as a per­sonal mockery is just a pro­jec­tion. Meaning that, when you are mindful and in tune with your ego, you can diminish the pro­jec­tion, which ulti­mately leads to a dimin­ishing of gelo­to­phobia.

  3. I think I used to have this really bad and kind of out­grew it? I do know that when people smile at me, it makes me uneasy. I see smiling as a threat for some reason.

    1. Author

      You can indeed out­grow it by becoming aware of your pro­jec­tions, or more secure as a person (which effec­tively means you project less. Feelings of unease when someone smiles and feeling threat­ened by it are also pro­jec­tions.

      Which begs the ques­tion what is under­neath those pro­jec­tions. Did you feel threat­ened in your youth by a person who tends to smile, or were you ridiculed and laughed at?

      There is also research that indi­cates autistic people are more likely to inter­pret neu­tral faces as threat­ening. When we have endured trauma, we become hyper­vig­i­lant of threats, and so even a neu­tral expres­sion or a smile can feel threat­ening.

  4. I’m cer­tain that most people have a fear of being embar­rassed, ridiculed, laughed at.
    I think that maybe you mean that some­times some people can be over-sensitive and inter­pret others action being directed towards them. This would order on para­noia.
    Maybe more autis­tics have para­noia, or just maybe some are being laughed at more than I normal in society, For these people, being afraid of this because of a his­tory of being teased, laughed at and excluded is a nat­ural response.

    1. Author

      Shame and guilt are the only two emo­tions that are learned rather than inherent. I don’t know if most people have a fear of being embar­rassed, ridiculed or laughed at (I would be curious to see research on this), but if they do, they acquired this fear.

      This is cru­cial, because gelo­to­phobia is linked to our traumas. And since many autistic people have a trau­matic past, you see a high degree of gelo­to­phobia.

      And you are right, it is indeed a nat­ural response.

      1. All teasing + ban­tering is a destruc­tive behav­iour. It always can cross bound­aries easily, including acci­den­tally, + its bound­aries are never reli­ably vis­ible the same to everyone. It should never be defended or ratio­nalised as nat­ural, because it always exerts some leverage towards the evil of con­for­mity. It is a quick unin­tel­lec­tual way for groups to test whether they find someone a con­cep­tual threat, with the test passed by same­ness + matching social instincts — obvi­ously dan­gerous for us.

        All inter­ac­tion is more rational, kinder, + safer without it. It is rational to choose to interact with con­sci­en­tious serious mind + ratio­nality. Since teenage I have held that to be the moral choice, + called it an ANTI-RIBALD POLICY. courtchange.wordpress.com/anti-ribald-policy/

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