This is a hard lesson to learn, but it is definitely one of the most important. I have learned a mountain of information in the time I have been researching Autism, but there is one thing you can’t find readily on the Internet– Normal is relative. It is relative to NT’s (Neurotypicals– I’ll be doing a blog on them later for now this just refers to non-Autistic people). It is relative to people on the spectrum and within the spectrum itself. One of my favorite quotes of all time was spoken by Albert Einstein, who was also believed to have been on the Autism spectrum. He said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” It couldn’t be more true for me, and I will venture to guess many others with any form of disability. We live our lives side-by-side with people who have basically shaped modern society, and their behavior is the standard of comparison. Over time the standards may evolve and change to reflect new ideals and ways of thinking, however, those standards have been shaped not by minorities but majorities. Let’s imagine for a second that the world was predominately people with Autism, and normalcy was little to no eye contact, an aversion to overwhelming sensory input, and everyone wore plain comfortable clothing without tags. I would not mind one bit, but if you love going to concerts, wearing fashionable clothes especially with tags, or have staring contests for fun that might sound like something you would rather avoid. Suddenly the roles are reversed and doing simple everyday things one might take for granted now would be seen as something strange and unimaginable. That is precisely how the world views people with Autism. The simple things we do every day that make sense to us are weird or confusing for people who don’t understand the reasoning behind our actions.
I am not saying that no one gives us unconditional love and support or that there aren’t people out there willing to do anything to bring awareness to Autism, but there is a disconnect between what is “normal” for NT people vs. Autistic people. Caregivers or parents might wonder why their son is spinning in circles because to them that only succeeds in making them dizzy. Autistic people might struggle to understand why everyone makes such strong and unwavering eye contact when to NTs that is a sign they are engaging in the conversation or being respectful. Both things are ridiculously simple to the people who do them, yet the meaning and reason behind it goes far beyond the simple acts themselves. I think it is important for both groups of people, if they are able, to communicate with the other side about these things or ask the questions they have in order to bridge the gap between the two worlds. Last year at an Autism Conference I met a couple of teachers who were discussing a particular student’s stimming and actions. I happened to overhear the conversation, and despite being terrified to speak to them or to interrupt the conversation, I made up my mind that I needed to try. I couldn’t tell them exactly what the boy was thinking or guarantee that his reasons were anything like my own, but I gave them a small window into our world that they hadn’t had before. I would have liked to know what they did differently because of the new information, but I like to think it made a positive impact. At any rate, the way to bridge a gap between people is communication and an open mind to understand differences. My challenge for anyone who is neurotypical is next time you come across a child flapping his hands, a girl spinning in circles, or a mother comforting a screaming child who is having a meltdown stop your own judgments, assumptions, and thoughts and try to keep an open mind as to why that child may be acting the way they are. If you have a question ask. It is better to ask a question than to give a judgement and maybe they can’t give an answer, but it is a step in the right direction to inclusiveness for those who aren’t experiencing the world in the same way as you.
The more specific lesson to learn in all this (particularly for those on the spectrum) is to stop comparing yourselves to NT’s. We may spend our whole lives striving to be like our neurologically unchallenged neighbors, but if we can’t see the beauty in our own way of processing the world, and we continue to base our successes off the scales of NT’s then we will be unsatisfied with our progress even if it is amazing. I constantly am being discouraged that I can’t understand social cues and take everything literally when I try to engage in conversation. My brain can understand 18th century British Literature and Shakespeare, but why can’t I learn to read body language? I had put an extreme amount of pressure on myself over the years, and it drove me into depression and nearly into something much worse. My problems weren’t that I wouldn’t be normal like I had thought; my problems were that I didn’t celebrate my strengths and my successes even if they were behind schedule for NT’s or they weren’t particularly amazing to people in which those traits came easy. I continually have to remind myself that I have done great things as someone who has Autism, and I am not just mediocre and struggling with Autism in a NT world. My challenge to those on the spectrum is to make a list of all the things you are proud of yourself for–they can be traits you possess, things you have done, places you have gone, or times when you just felt good about yourself. Write the list and then hang it up somewhere to remind yourself that you are amazing, that you are beautiful and strong, and that you can do anything you want to do. You might be different, but you are far from being less than those who may shape the rules of society and what is “normal.”
NT’s and those with Autism can co-exist together and learn from each other as each side possesses great strengths and weaknesses, but when one half is judged by their abilities to perform like the other who is fundamentally different, they are doomed to fail from the beginning. Remember that normal is relative and better suited for a video game level than for the expectations of a human being.