Posts Tagged ‘normal’

The lies we tell

Recently the New York Times posted an article titled The Kids Who Beat Autism. (Predictably, ASAN is questioning both the possibility of ‘recovery’ and the desirability of it.) I’ve mentioned before how I felt lied to as a child by the idea that the best way to make friends is to “just be yourself”, and this story and the reaction to it highlights why.

See, “just be yourself” is good advice–you can’t make a true friendship if you’re pretending to be someone you’re not, and self-acceptance is healthier than self-loathing. And I’m sure that all the people who give such advice truly mean it. Culturally, though, it only seems to be held as good advice for people who are sufficiently normal, which would also be the group of people least needing such reassurances. For those of us who are too different, that’s not how it seems to work. Instead those differences become something to label, treat, fix so that we can be more like other people. We get told to be ourselves just as much as anyone else–but the way we’re treated tells us that being who we are is not acceptable.

There are times when differences do need to be addressed because they are causing problems in our lives. The question, though, is what is the best way to temper or eliminate those challenges. Sometimes the work is something we have to do ourselves. Sometimes, the work is best shared or done at a structural or cultural level–it is far more reasonable to install a ramp than to ask a wheelchair user to navigate a flight of stairs, for example. And sometimes the only challenge is that those differences highlight that we are different. A lot has been said in the autism community about attempts to eliminate stimming, which frequently causes no problems other than the fact that other people notice and are uncomfortable with it. Or (lack of) eye contact, which is a very culture-specific demand to begin with. Why should anything be done about something so superficial? The problem is that often most or all of the work is demanded to be dealt with at the individual level, putting all the onus on the person who already has it hardest and sometimes bringing no benefit to that person at a personal cost.

As a culture we talk a lot about being tolerant of individual differences. In practice though, difference is often considered unacceptable. Instead of asking people who are struggling to spend precious effort on being “normal”, how much better would things be if we were actually as accepting of difference as we say we should be?


Defining normal

Two years ago my worst fear was confirmed.

I’d been having troubles involving some friends of mine. This wasn’t new–for this group, yes, but it was part of a recurring pattern that I’d noticed over the years.  I’d thought I had finally managed to break free of it, but clearly I was wrong. I realized I needed help if I was going to break the cycle, and was referred to a behavioural therapist. After a few sessions, she diagnosed me with Asperger’s Syndrome (a form of autism).

This fit some things I already knew in the worst way possible.  Everyone wants to be normal, and I’m no exception. I’d had various minor troubles in the past, but I always told myself that if I just tried harder things would work out. This broke that illusion for me. I wasn’t normal. I was abnormal. I was weird. I was broken. Something truly was wrong with me.

As much as we try to tell ourselves that we prize diversity, we don’t. Just try it–go outside and do something harmless but unusual.  I’ll wait. *taps foot* Back already? The police what? Oh, well…anyways, you just experienced what I’ve dealt with my whole life. We all feel pressure to be ‘normal’, from the clothes we wear to the jobs we take to the words we use. Sometimes we can be different and get away with it to a degree–we’re labeled as ‘quirky’. Other times we become social pariahs. If we’re not what society decides is normal we’re told to change, and the more we ‘resist’ (if being unable to comply counts as resisting) the less anyone wants to do with us.

So this diagnosis was a frightening thing for me.  I wanted to resist it, but I also wanted to learn more. So I started looking. And what I found was more people like me. People who have dealt with the same things in life I have. People who are just as confused, if not more so, than I am. People who have never been able to ‘fit in’.

I also found people comforting each other, relaying experiences, giving advice. And more than that, I found people who refused to be labeled as ‘broken’. They were different and wanted to be respected for that. They wanted society to learn to work with them and their differences rather than requiring that they conform to it’s standards. I was no longer alone–there was a large community of people like me, people who accepted themselves as who they are and who wanted society to walk the walk of being accepting of differences.

After a while, I was no longer scared. I was different–I’d long known that–but I wasn’t broken. There was nothing wrong with me. I’d already learned to accept myself for who I was, and being diagnosed didn’t change that. I was still me, but I’d gained a framework to work within. I had a new way to look at myself, that took the bits and pieces that felt out of place and gave them a place to reside. I became better able to understand myself, how I related to others and how they related to me. Instead of fear, the diagnosis brought me comfort.

And after a while, I started to feel…normal.

Be honest, be yourself

Rachel over at Journeys with Autism is doing a very detailed critique of the Empathy Quotient test, a series of questions often used to help diagnose people with autism and Asperger’s. I suggest you read the whole thing if you’re interested in issues related to autism, because while I’m sure it’s a useful diagnostic tool, it rests on a lot of assumptions about a lack of empathy from auties that are quite false.

That’s not why I’m writing this post though. A comment on the third section of the critique caught my attention–how we are constantly told to ‘be ourselves’ and that ‘honesty is the best policy’, yet when you actually try to follow that advice it always turns out badly. Heck, practically every children’s book, TV show and movie has a moral about being yourself and things working out hunky-dory in it somewhere.

Anyone who believes that is in for a bad ride.

As far as being yourself goes, that’s good advice. Trying to police yourself to fit into a different mold is tiring–more importantly, it probably still won’t work. So the effort that goes into it isn’t really worth it. Plus, it’s also a crucial step towards having a healthy relationship with yourself. But the idea that this will magically lead you to someone who will accept you, and our culture constantly tells us, is a recipe for being let down. Relationships take work, and we all have to be willing to make compromises to accommodate others. It also tends to take active effort to find people who are willing to take you more or less as you are. And we may find that there are aspects of ourselves that we don’t like and it is alright to make an effort to change those things (especially if they’re interfering with your life, socially or otherwise).

Being honest is trickier. There are many socially understood areas where it is expected that we will be less than completely honest. A personal pet peeve of mine is the social protocol of opening up a conversation with some variation on the phrase, “how are you?” 99% of the time, the person doesn’t actually want an answer! But sometimes, the person on the receiving end doesn’t understand that, or worse, has something they want/need to talk about and are looking for an opening to talk about it. To confuse things even more, occasionally the person asking actually DOES want to know how things are, and in that situation the habitual ‘fine’ that I usually use impedes, rather than facilitates, communication. Which could be avoided if people were actually as honest as they profess they want. Honesty is the best policy, but it’s not a policy that most of the world has adopted–the age-old, “do these pants make my butt look big?” comes to mind here.

People in general tend to be attracted to easy answers, some more than others, and the idea that these two pieces of advice will lead to everything working out fine is one that most of us want to believe in. The unhappy truth is that rarely is anything that easy, and the harder you hold onto these formulaic beliefs, the worse you’ll feel when reality sinks in.