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Everyday humour and laughter can tell us about children's ability to engage with and understand others. A group of 19 pre-school children with autism and 16 pre-school children with Down's syndrome, matched on non-verbal mental age, participated in a cross-sectional study. Parental reports revealed no group differences in overall frequencies of laughter or laughter at tickling, peekaboo or slapstick. However, in the autism group, reported laughter was rare in response to events such as funny faces or socially inappropriate acts, but was common in strange or inexplicable situations. Reported responses to others‘laughter also differed: children with autism rarely attempted to join in others’ laughter and rarely attempted to re-elicit it through acts of clowning or teasing. Analysis of videotaped interactions also showed no group differences in frequencies of child or adult laughter. However, the children with autism showed higher frequencies of unshared laughter in interactive situations and lower frequencies of attention or smiles in response to others' laughter. Humour is an affective and cultural phenomenon involving the sharing of affect, attention and convention; children with autism show problems in some simple affective and mutual as well as joint attentional and cultural aspects of humorous engagement.