by RACHEL ROBERTSON
As the (proud) parent of an autistic child who is not “normal”, I want to respond to the article “Is my child normal?” In this post mothers were invited to share their children’s unusual behaviour so that other mothers can reassure them that this behaviour is “normal”. Over five hundred people posted a comment on this story within the first few days.
I think that sharing stories within a community is important and even healing. What I do want to add though, is that I think the Mamamia community should also use this opportunity to spearhead a re-think about the concept of “normality”.
This would be a fantastic initiative because it would help those of us living with difference and disability to feel less excluded from mainstream society. And I think it would also help all mothers feel more comfortable with how they and their children are expressing themselves.
There has always been a huge range of variation in all aspects of the human being (and other species too). In the past, this variation was acknowledged and expected; only gods were perfect or ideal and humans were expected to exhibit variation.
As Lennard Davis has described, with the growth of scientific measurement and particularly the development of the normal or norm curve as a mapping tool, social scientists started describing something called “normal”. This “normal” was basically those people who fell into the middle of the norm curve. People on the outside edges became suddenly non-normal or “abnormal”. A shift occurred where the norm was then amalgamated with the ideal to create “normality”, which then became not only expected but also preferred.
This has not been all bad, of course. As a result of this shift, for example, we can now access charts which show typical child development. These are helpful for parents and professionals.
But there have been negative results from this shift as well. We no longer expect human variation. People who fall outside the norm are often considered second class citizens, defined by their differences, usually by lack and deficit. “Normal” has become a term of approval and abnormal a term of condemnation. “Normal” behaviour and life is defended by setting up barriers against those who are abnormal. No individual means to do this, but it is part of the structures of society.
I totally support the use of things like charts of typical child development. If your child isn’t meeting some of those typical expected milestones, it is a good idea to seek some professional advice to make sure your child gets all the help she or he might need.
But should we really be talking about “normal”, or even typical, behaviours? Should we start categorising unusual behaviours as too weird or different to be “normal”? Doesn’t that suggest that some people are less acceptable and valued than others? My son preferred reciting the times tables over singing or listening to nursery rhymes. Yes, that’s unusual or atypical. Yes, it was an indication that he was autistic. But does that preference make him “abnormal”?
How do you think a mother like me feels when I read that Mamamia mothers can reassure other mothers that their children are “normal”? It sounds as though being the mother of a child who is different is sad or bad or not a part of ordinary life. Yes, having a child with autism can be challenging and it is sad for me to witness his daily struggles. But all motherhood comes with challenge and sadness. I experience huge joy from my son, just like most mothers. He is a funny, loving and lovable boy, who at almost thirteen is interested in girls, iPads, cooking and lego.
Please don’t mimic the medical and commercial world where sameness is good and difference is bad, because difference is always seen against a standard measuring tool of “normality”.
Mamamia can be a forum for embracing difference and diversity, a space where those of us living differently can be respected and valued alongside those living more typical lives.
I fully appreciate that the intent of this post is to support mothers and I have no problem with it, nor with people sharing their stories and hearing other voices. That is all good. Being a mother right now is obviously tough – why that might be is another article, but if this initiative gives people some confidence in their own relationship with their kids, then that is terrific.
I just ask people to think more deeply about their notions of what is “normal” and why it is that we feel reassured when we are told our family is “normal”. Difference and disability are frightening to people – I know, I’ve been there and seen the faces, including my own. But it shouldn’t be. It is a natural part of life, the planet and being human. Please embrace it!
Rachel Robertson is the author of Reaching One Thousand: a story of love, motherhood and autism (Black Inc 2012) and a lecturer in writing at Curtin University. You can find her blog here.
What does normal mean to you?