“Will he ever be normal?”

A month or so back, I was having a friendly chat with a neighbour. He was a nice man, who has only ever been accepting towards our family. He’s seen my son move from a rather severely impacted autistic child, to the rather more mild impact autism has on my son’s life today. My son was with me during the conversation, happily buzzing around in the background in our yard, and the neighbour commented on how well my son appeared to be doing, and then asked “will he ever be normal?”

By Astrid, via Flickr

My brain and my mouth froze. I wanted to scold the man for asking such a loaded question right in front of my son, but I also wanted to act like the question didn’t matter and smooth it over because the more attention I brought to it the more my son would think the question was important. I wanted him to un-say it. I also wanted to lecture him about him assumptions and valuations of normality, but I wasn’t sure how I was meant to package that lecture, or if it was worth the confrontation, because I knew the man’s heart was in the right place even though his wording choice was offensive (and stupid). Eventually I decided to just say my son would always struggle with certain things like social interactions, but that he’d be fine. Which was when the second stomach-punch was delivered.

He asked how the “normal kids” at my son’s school got along with him. Again, my brain felt like it was misfiring. Why did he keep packaging the world into normal versus my son, and why was he more interested in what the normal kids thought than how my son was finding the school? At this point I’d had enough of the conversation and didn’t want to continue to talk to the man in front of my son, so I answered rather dismissively that they were fine with my son, and very deliberately changed the topic.

Since the conversation, I’ve been trying to figure out what I should have said and done differently, if anything. Would it have been a waste of time trying to get this man to understand, when his view of the world was so binary (normal, abnormal, and my son fitting into the latter), is it the sort of conversation you can even have “in passing” with a neighbour? Surely I should have at least attempted it (at the time I was rather shocked and having trouble coming up with an appropriate response). Should I forgive his ignorance and the upset it caused me (and potentially my son), considering his apparent lack of experience or understanding of disability, disability rhetoric, or autism? Are his good intentions and apparent concern, more important than the harm he does with such views? Was I too caught up on the word “normal,” when the man was probably struggling to find the right words for his questions? Should I just be happy he took an interest and asked his questions in the first place?

These questions have been going around in my mind since then, because the conversation and what was said in front of my son still upsets me. I want to keep my son away from this neighbour, to avoid any more such views and rubbish molding his lovely young mind. But should I be actively confronting and correcting the man instead, did I miss a great opportunity, and should I actively pursue the chance to fix the man’s future views?

A friend shared a post with me today, which drove me to write this down. The post was about a mother taking a very open-minded and educational attitude towards annoying and ignorant questions about autism. (I like the post, and it’s worth a read.) So now I find myself thinking out loud about the best way to deal with those brief encounters with people who don’t take an active interest in disability and autism – instead bringing along their prejudices and presumptions – but who do appear to care about my son. I think, as a matter of integrity and the betterment of attitudes towards my son and his peers, that I must be willing to confront people when this happens, but find a way to steer the confrontation away from an expression of my righteous indignation, and towards a genuine learning opportunity. I think this is something I will get better at with time, the more chances I have to explain and express these issues to others in person.

I wish I didn’t know this situation will arise again. I wish I didn’t have to get good at dealing with these things. But I can’t un-wish attitudes, words or conversations; I can work towards changing them though. I must, and I will, I’m just still trying to figure out how.

Facing and dealing with such situations, is becoming my new normal.

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9 Responses to “Will he ever be normal?”

  1. Hilary says:

    I’ve had many such comments over the years. Those exact words. Sometimes more offensive words like handicapped. Particularly distressing in the presence of of the young person themselves. Still not sure how to handle them.

  2. nostromo says:

    In my opinion what your neighbour meant by normal was “non-Autistic” he just said it in a clumsy way that upset you.

    E.g. “He asked how the “normal kids” at my son’s school got along with him”
    – when you change the words becomes
    “He asked how the non-Autistic kids at my son’s school got along with him”.

    Sounds like he was interested thats a good thing in my book.

    • I do think his heart was in the right place, but asking the questions like that right in front of my son was inappropriate, clearly telling my son he was “not normal” unlike his “normal” friends. If the conversation had been had outside of my son’s hearing, I could have pursued the issue better and been a bit more understanding of his poor choice of words. I think part of the problem is his presumption that my son can’t hear or understand him just because my son acts a bit differently, I’d hope he wouldn’t talk so blatantly in front of other children, or maybe he’s just not a thoughtful man and would have done the same in front of other kids, I just don’t know.

  3. M.J. says:

    To play the devil’s advocate, why would you expect a person who doesn’t have any experience or exposure to disabilities to conform to our (inaccurate) usage of the word “normal”?

    Can or should we really expect everyone we meet to be aware of the the disabled world’s sensitivity when it comes words like “normal”? And, if so, where does it stop? Each and every group has its own quirks and particular sensitivities. Each group has phrases or concepts that they view as insensitive that the rest of the world has no clue exist.

    To give you a few examples, never ask the parents of young twins if their children are twins. They get that question at least ten times a day, every day for the first four or five years. And never, ever say to the parent of young twins something along the lines of “my kids are only a year apart, its just like having twins” because that just shows that you are completely ignorant of the issues involved in raising multiples.

    Along those same lines, never say to a person who has struggled with clinical depression (or their family or friends) that you think you have depression too because you are unhappy some of the time. Feeling sad and real depression are two extremely different things.

    All of these phrases have the potential to set off members of their respective groups because of perceived (or real) ignorance and insensitivity. But, if you have never been exposed to these groups, you wouldn’t necessarily know that or understand (or care) about why these groups are so touchy about these phrases.

    What I try to do in these situations is to remember that the people who I am talking to don’t share the same experiences that I do nor are they going to care about the same things that I do. They have their own particular hangups and I have mine.

    So anytime I run into someone who asks my if my children are twins I just tell them they are seeing double. If they want to tell me how their children who are two years apart are just like twins, I smile and listen as politely as I can manage. And whenever I get questions about my children’s normalcy (or lack thereof), I turn the question around and ask them “what’s normal?”

    • Hi MJ, yes, that is why I didn’t lose my temper at the man or am calling him evil, I know he meant well and I recognise his lack of knowledge in this area, which is why I have been wondering whether I should have turned it into a learning opportunity. I do think it’s worth alerting people to language and notions foreign to them in terms of upsetting groups they’re not familiar with, I’d rather someone told me I was using offensive language than leave me to continue using it and unintentionally upsetting others. I just struggle with knowing when and how to bring it up, and yes, sometimes whether it is worth bringing it up. I appreciate your comment, thanks.

  4. Sunshine says:

    Ouch. I agree with you- I think I would totally freeze if someone asked me such loaded questions right in front of my son. What the hell. I also think it’s obvious that the guy is just ignorant, and that his questions did not come from a place of malice. I’m a HUGE fan of the redirection in the form of deliberately changing the subject. It’s often pretty effective and usually everyone keeps their dignity. You can always follow up with teaching moments later. Seriously. It was an inappropriate topic that you did not want to be forced into. Why not just shut it down? Are you not satisfied with your handling of the situation? I hope I have the sense to do the same when something like this happens to me. 🙂

    • I don’t know how to feel about it, to be honest. I am sure of the discomfort, I am sure of the inappropriateness of the question right in front of my son, but beyond that I’m still figuring this out. I don’t think what I did at the time was a bad reaction per se (the changing topics and overly brief replies), perhaps a lost opportunity at the worst.

  5. sluggomarie says:

    I would have responded with a simple question, “What is normal?” It would both point out, in a fairly non-combative way, that there isn’t universal agreement on the meaning and applicability of the word and put the obligation back on him to explain what he means by it. That could open up the opportunities for additional conversation and education. I completely understand not wanting to give to much attention to the issue, but also think it important that we model for our kids appropriate ways to respond to the sorts of questions they may well be asked themselves. I’ve learned with my daughter that even though she may not seem to be paying attention to the questions we’re asked (she is transracially adopted, autistic, and has Tourette syndrome so we are a magnet for comments of all sorts — well meaning and otherwise), she does hear them and does pay attention to how I handle them. I have heard her using some of the same language with peers at school now that she is a bit older and more comfortable advocating for herself.

    • That’s a good point sluggomarie, I will give that further thought, and will keep it in mind for the next time this situation arises in front of my son. Thanks for sharing that vital perspective.

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