The word “normal” gets a bad rap these days. The idea of normalcy is attacked and undermined with the aim of leaving it toothless; supposedly also then removing the sting in the tail of identifying someone as “abnormal” and (thereby) worthy of being singled out as “wrong” or to be ostracised from general society. However, just because “normal” is a relative, contextual (and sometimes elusive) concept, doesn’t mean it lacks importance or function (any more than the word “big” lacks function and meaning).
My son is abnormal when compared to other children the same age as him, which is helpful in identifying that he needs more support and a different approach than the average child, but it doesn’t tell me much until I find his normal; his normal is autism.
Once I found his normal – the parameters within which his behaviour and abilities made sense and were even predictable – I also found meaningful guidance for myself dealing with him, and for helping him to find happiness and be able to make personal progress. Beyond that I also had to ascertain his even more specific normal; what is normal for my son as an individual: Once you know someone well enough to say “this behaviour is normal for him” or “this behaviour is completely abnormal” again you have a reference point for figuring out whether what you’re observing requires further exploration, explanation and help, or whether is nothing new or of particular concern.
Even within this more conceptualised approach, “normal” – for autism and for my son – clearly still has wide and fuzzy edges. But that doesn’t stop us being able to say “this is well outside the bounds of normal for X” or “this is on the edges of normal” and thereby deciding how (and whether to) proceed with addressing the issue we have noticed.
The real problems arise – in my opinion – when we step beyond descriptive use of normal, into normative use. That is, when we go beyond “this is the way it is for most people” to “this is the way it should be, or the only way it should be:” When normal is used as “good” and abnormal is used as synonym for “bad.” Again, context matters; it’s true that it is “bad” – or harder – to live in a society structured for the normal majority, so that we might meaningfully say “condition X is a bad thing” in this way. But to go further and say “people who have condition X are bad and unwanted” is a further and dangerous progression from the contextual observation.
I want to be clear that I am not equating all struggles with disability (as an instance of “abnormal”) with societal attitudes and barriers; I am of the view that disability is identifiable objectively within the body as well (I’ve previously written more extensively on the social model of disability for those interested in that point). Indeed, I don’t think we should be afraid of saying “this is a notably abnormal body medically or physically”; again, it is when people go further to add or imply “and therefore it is bad or shouldn’t exist” that we should be more wary and concerned.
Yes, body and mind abnormality can be objectively disadvantageous – beyond just society and attitude issues – but it is what we do or think about that abnormality which is important; the mere recognition and identification of an abnormality, is not in itself evil or wrong.
The upshot of all this: The word and concept of normal, is not the enemy. My son is generally thought of as “abnormal,” but that doesn’t mean he’s lesser or unwanted or doesn’t belong in society. It just means he’s significantly outside the usual functioning of other children his age, and of people other ages too; he’s notably and importantly different. Calling him normal, or trying to redefine normal, wouldn’t remove his differences or make those differences any less obvious to other people. He is normal in the autism world, and the world of disabilities more generally. And “normal” for my son on an individual level, is a healthy, happy boy with an ever-brightening future ahead of him; his normal, is a beautiful thing.