Being autistic, I am not always able to tell when someone is being serious and when they are kidding around. Things like sarcasm and teasing are hard for me to identify; the contextual clues required to differentiate a light hearted joke from a serious insult are not always obvious, resulting in my often taking funny situations far too seriously.

This caused problems for me when I was in my early years of education. When a teacher was trying to be lighthearted—perhaps making a silly joke about my name in relation to the similarly named state or peppermint patty—I would take the joke too seriously, coming home in tears thinking my teacher was mocking me. By contrast, I would also take situations in jest when they were not meant to be. A fight between friends could seem to me like a lighthearted spat, and my attempt to join in on the fun would only escalate the situation, leaving two very angry friends and one very confused me.

When coming to Bowdoin, I was worried at how my inability to register serious situations might hinder me socially. I worried that I would come off on the wrong foot if I was taking things too casually or too seriously, and thus alienate the people I would be studying with for the next four years. I was especially worried about how I would interact with the people living on my floor. If I could not interact appropriately with them, then I would be left dealing with a very long—and very uncomfortable—first year.

Unfortunately for me, my dormmates turned out to be the joking type. At times I worry that the only way they can communicate with one another is to rib and tease. While for the first few weeks of my first semester, my use of the age old autistic tactic of “winging it” allowed me to differentiate between teasing and serious comments, I was still worried that the façade might come down, and I might slip up in a major way.

Fortunately for me, my new friends and I came up with a way for me to cope with their joking nature, and still allow them their fun. On one cold night, while walking back from Super Snack, I made a suggestion that would save me forever more from the embarrassment and confusion that I feared. Enter the sarcasm eagle.

The sarcasm eagle is an effective and efficient, autism-approved way of indicating when someone is not being serious. To use the sarcasm eagle, one puts one’s hands together, with the thumbs wrapped around one another, and the hands splayed out to either side, palms inward, as if miming a bird or other winged creature. Then, one flaps the “wings” of their hands and says, in a clear tone, “Ca-caw.”

The beauty of the sarcasm eagle lies in its clarity and simplicity. It is so outside the realm of typical behavior that there is no way of misinterpreting it (how many times a day do you see someone imitating a bird?). And instead of a long, drawn-out explanation as to the nature of a joke, or a justification as to the reasons for a comment, one need only flap their hands and say “Ca-caw,” and with that simple physical gesture and masterful onomatopoeic phrase, one conveys a wealth of information as to the nature of the situation.

For me, having such a simple and reliable way of reading a situation is a godsend. I know just what the tone of a situation is, without having to use my less than stellar reasoning to figure it out on my own. I am very grateful to my floormates for accommodating me in this regard.