Will an autistic child ever be normal?

First things first, I really don’t like this question! It is full of presumptions, most if not all of which I profoundly disagree with. But the simple answer is no, an autistic child will never be normal, they will always be incredibly special and that is a wonderful thing, not a problem.

So let’s try and unpack that question a bit more. I totally understand why people would ask it, and if you have arrived here by searching for an answer to this, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Indeed, the fact that you are looking for an answer is fantastic as a key issue with autism is the need for more education and understanding. Asking questions is, of course, a big part of learning.

But it is also important to understand exactly what we are asking, or the answer will make no sense. The best example of this is the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything, as revealed by Douglas Adams in his wonderful “Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy” books. The answer to the ultimate question is calculated to be 42, which is of course completely meaningless because the question being asked was not properly understood.

There are two main issues with our question as far as I can see. Firstly, what is normal? As a recent TV ad put it, there are over 6 billion versions of normal on planet Earth at present. Yes, I am playing devil’s advocate a little here, as I know that what the question means is will an autistic child ever fit in and be like the other kids, or words to that effect. Will they be conventional, predictable and blend in with the crowd? Will they stop needing special help and attention? Will they develop in the same way as other children to live a full and mainstream life?

But what is the benchmark for normal? I totally understand that if an autistic child is always the one who behaves or reacts differently from their peers, you might wish that they sometimes would go with the crowd and not need special attention. I completely get that you might want an autistic child to not need extra help with what might be seen as ordinary tasks that any child their age should be able to do. But at the same time, and without downplaying the challenge of developmental issues, why not focus just as much on the wonderful and different things that such a child can do?

I think the big issue here is the assumption that fitting in with the crowd and being very similar to everyone else is always a good thing. In fact, we give very mixed messages on this to our children. We may wish that the child who cannot sit still or who is slow to learn to talk is more like the others, but then we teach our children to try to stand out from the crowd when it comes to passing interviews for college or getting a good job. So we only actually want our children to fit in and be like the others some of the time!

Which brings me to my second issue with this question – even if we can define “normal” in this context, and I think that it would be virtually impossible for us all to agree on such a definition, why would you want a child or anyone else to follow that model so they are just like everyone else? Are we really saying that we want people to be different but not too different?

I completely understand that when it comes to health matters, we would want our child not to be ill and to have a mind and body that work well, though of course we must remember that  very many sick and disabled people live hugely successful and productive lives. Again, what is he definition of working well anyway?

Equally, we all have things that our bodies and minds cannot do, even if we consider ourselves physically or mentally “normal”. I will never be able to run fast no matter how hard I train – my body just cannot do it. That is the case with many of us, and might be classed as normal. So who would you rather be when it comes to being able to run, me or Usain Bolt?

You might say that there is an important distinction between being better than normal and worse than normal. That is fairly easy to define in terms of something like running speed where an average can be calculated, but equally it matters very little in the wider world if you are an exceptionally slow runner, apart from perhaps in the annual humiliation of school sports events or if you are being pursued by a hungry bear!

More abstract abilities like thought, creativity and charisma are very much harder to measure in any meaningful way. Then you have to factor in that all of these attributes fit together to make us utterly unique individuals. Even if your ability in one area is very similar to that of someone else, like twi runners finishing in a dead heat, the complete package that makes you who you are will be very different to that other person. Not even identical twins are matching packages in every respect, even if they cannot be told apart physically.

The point with autistic people as opposed to neurotypicals is that we tend to be much more different in some areas. Our brains are wired in a very different way to many others which means that some autistic children may have trouble learning to speak or tie their shoe laces, for example, which are seen as “normal” skills, but we may see solutions to complex problems in a flash. Our brains which show us shoelaces in a different way so that we cannot work out how to do them up also show us other situations in a different way, but in these cases that different perspective takes us to a solution much faster.

As with so much in life, there are ups and downs of being different, and we cannot change who we are. But as I set out earlier, there are times in life when everyone strives to stand out from the crowd. A current trend in the business world is for us all to identify and define our unique selling point or USP. There is a big clue in the word unique – what makes you different from absolutely everybody else? Autistic people have a head start on this!

I know that there are times when you just want your child to fit in. Believe me, when I was at school I was desperate to fit in and tried to stay friends with other kids who treated me appallingly just to try and appear normal. But actually, it is much easier to be different and pretend to be “normal” for short periods than vice versa. It can be incredibly hard to have to go to great efforts to pretend to be a lot more different from the crowd than you actually are when you need to stand out to get that job or assignment.

I admit it has taken me 50 years to really appreciate the value of the way that autism makes me very different from many others. I still curse being so different on occasion. But I am absolutely not normal by any definition and I have no wish to be. I delight in self-identifying as the weirdo in the corner. What needs to change is not autistic people or others who are different having to fit in with whatever society decides is normal this week. What is needed is a world much more accepting of the value of individuality and differences.

It is through our differences that humanity makes progress. When that first cave man or woman invented the wheel, it took someone else with the vision to put 2 or 4 of them on a vehicle. If everyone had only been able to see a wheel and nothing else, where would we be now? Yet at other times we despise those who are different. We see difference as a threat because we do not understand it.

But you do not need to understand to accept. I would never, ever have a tattoo. I can’t even bear to write a note on my hand to remember something. The thought of either horrifies me and I cannot understand how others can do it. But it doesn’t stop me from valuing and accepting them for who they are.

Will an autistic child ever be normal? No. Can an autistic child live a happy, fulfilled life and make a major contribution to the world? Absolutely yes, especially if those differences are nurtured, celebrated and built on as the strengths that they can be. Of course, they may face barriers and problems as a result of autistic traits, but these can and will be overcome with determination, ingenuity and above all greater acceptance of difference in society.

What the world needs right now is a lot more different thinking. Autistic people need to play a huge role in that, and autistic children are the great fresh thinkers of both today and tomorrow. Normal is vastly overrated – differences, including autism, should be embraced rather than feared.  Different is the future.

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