No such thing as normal?

[CN: Sanism]

I hear/read this comment a lot:

“There’s no such thing as normal!”

On one hand, the people who make that comment are correct: “Normal” is a completely socially constructed concept. What is considered to be normal varies from place to place, so “normal” isn’t a thing that objectively exists.

On the other hand, that comment serves to erase a whole lot of problems in society. It’s a bit like saying everyone is a little autistic“. When you claim that there is no such thing as normal, you’re erasing the very real problems that people experience when they are perceived to be “abnormal”.

I want to offer you a challenge. As you go through this week, consider the things in your societies that are positioned as normal, and then consider how that impacts on the people who aren’t perceived to be normal. I could give you a list of examples linked to constructions of race, gender, and sexuality, but I want you to for yourselves. To get you started, I will focus on one aspect of “normal”.

There is the socially constructed view that there are “normal” brains and “abnormal” brains. Those are the words used to explore this concept within psychology. That is what universities generally teach students studying psychology: A normal brain works like this whereas an abnormal brain doesn’t work like that. Value judgements are attached. Normal brains are spoken about as though they work properly whereas abnormal ones apparently don’t.

According to psychology’s definition of normal and abnormal, I have an abnormal brain. (As an aside, there isn’t even one way of defining normal and abnormal within the field of psychology, but trust me, I don’t fit normal according to any of their ways of defining it.)

I am neurodivergent. My brain works differently to the brains of a neurotypical people. That impacts on the way in which I react to things. It impacts on the way in which I perceive the world. It impacts on the way I relate to other people. There are times when my neurodivergence isn’t noticeable, and there are times when my neurodivergence is way too obvious to ignore.

As an Autistic person, I can pass as neurotypical. That is a privilege that I hold, but as I get older, my ability (and desire) to pass is decreasing. I am keenly aware of how differently I am treated by others now that it is becoming more and more obvious to them that I don’t conform to social constructions of “normal”.

For a long time, I fought against my neurology. I tried to conform. I tried to fit in. I tried to gain acceptance from others by acting in ways that they might consider to be “normal” with varying degrees of success. The result of that was that I was constantly uncomfortable in my environment, and I lacked self-acceptance. I hated that I wasn’t “normal” because I was raised, like many others, to believe that normal is good and anything else is bad.

Once I accepted my neurodivergence and myself, my need to fit in diminished. The pressure of passing… well, it passed. I am no longer interested in passing for the purposes of making others around me more comfortable because, fortunately, I have found people who do accept me as I am. I am no longer interested in passing for the purposes of making others around me more comfortable because, even when I am not passing, I do not pose a risk to others. My “abnormal” way of living and being provides me with happiness and peace, it harms no one, and it is “normal” for me.

However, my “abnormal” way of living and being does mean that there are times when I feel as though I am constantly challenging constructions of normalcy. I didn’t set out to do that. It wasn’t a conscious choice. I was born with a brain that is different to what is considered to be normal. Being my authentic self means that my self-acceptance, my Autistic pride, and my defiant neurodivergence challenges societal constructions of “normal”.

I believe that the made up concept of “normal” is a pretty rubbish concept, but it is still important to realise that it has power. “Normal” means that I get shunned by people – not because of anything I do, but because of who I am. “Normal” means that I am more vulnerable to systematic abuse than others might be. “Normal” means that there are times when I have to work really, really hard at passing so as not to raise suspicion, even though I’m not doing anything threatening or illegal. “Normal” means that there are people who have never met me who hate me.

But I would rather be abnormal and happy than normal and unhappy. While it might not be as straight forward a dichotomy as that, it does seem like those are my only two choices from where I sit.

This week, I hope you can look around you and notice how “normal” is considered to be “good”. I hope you will see how those socially constructed ideas of what is considered “normal” impacts on the lives of people who don’t fit those ideas. Most of all, I hope that you will realise that “normal” is a made up concept, but it is a concept that still holds great power, and it will continue to hold that power until more people start questioning why we even have that concept in the first place.