On the spectrum

The concept of being normal has always fascinated me. Rather like viewing an alien being under a microscope, I understood from an early age that normal was something I would never be. (My ringtone says it all – “Whoa-oh, I’m an alien, I’m a legal alien.”)

I remember my dad, a doctor, coming to talk to my grade 6 class about being normal. “Who thinks they’re normal?” he asked. Lots of hands went up, including my own. “You’re certainly not normal,” he said to me. I thought it was funny (telling in itself – some kids would have been mortified). Dad went on to say how the “typical” Australian drank this much beer, smoked this many cigarettes, etc, etc. Normal wasn’t necessarily desirable, under that lens.

Always one of the tallest in my class, I got taller and taller – topping out at around 185cm, or nearly 6’1″. I’ve always quite enjoyed being tall, but many people, especially guys, were quite threatened by it. When I was 16, during some banter about not being able to reach the top shelf, I joked that I didn’t have that problem. A male acquaintance blurted out “Yes, but you’re not normal, are you? I mean, how many guys can you go out with??” Oddly enough, he was quite a lot shorter than me.

As I got more and more comfortable with the idea that blending into the background was not among my available life choices, I branched out in other ways. Ever more flamboyant earrings. Odd socks. Shaved head. Non-standard choices of all sorts. This was kind of a reach for me, because I grew up quite square and conservative, but it began to fascinate me how freaky people seemed to find it. Especially the socks. Many people find the socks quite alarming. Good heavens. They’re just socks, people!

These days being seen as normal seems to be increasingly important. Autistic kids, for example, are “abnormal”, even though any reading of the characteristics of those diagnosed as “on the spectrum” must surely prompt the more honest among us to go “hmmm… I do that. And that. And that.” It’s a spectrum. A range. Rather than seeing the spectrum as going from normal to abnormal, why don’t we see it as going from common to rare?


If “Manners maketh man” as someone said
Then he’s the hero of the day
It takes a man to suffer ignorance and smile
Be yourself no matter what they say
Whoa-oh, I’m an alien
I’m a legal alien
I’m an Englishman in New York

Sting – Englishman In New York

Similarly, lists of attributes of almost any mental illness prompt at least small amounts of recognition. We are quick to label the abnormal as threatening and scary, yet none of us are truly normal (after all, how many families do have 2.4 children?). Normal just means we sit in the middle of any statistical distribution. By definition there must be many people outside any normal range. We don’t make clothes that fit them (ooh, trust me on that). We don’t make schools that fit them (although there are some amazing exceptions). We don’t make a culture that fits them.

We find them alarming and disturbing. We don’t really want to be around them. We’d quite like it if they’d just disappear, and if they choose not to we’ll give them a really hard time for all the things they do that don’t fit the norm.

The interesting thing is that biologically diversity is a source of strength. A species under threat needs diverse skills, abilities and attributes if it is to survive. A genetically homogeneous crop can be wiped out by a single virus, but a diverse crop will almost always survive.

Intellectually, diversity is also a strength. Diverse ideas can provoke conflict, sure, but they also provide a range of solutions. They are much more likely to find new solutions to old problems, because there will be more thinking out of the box – more creativity, more variation.

Ultimately wherever we are on the spectrum – autistic or not, tall or thin, short or fat, gay or straight, kinky or vanilla, black or white – we all have a lot to offer. So why draw boundaries around normal?


3 thoughts on “On the spectrum

  1. Joe

    I remember realising one day a few years back that I was more “normal” than most… and that as such I was outside every recognised subcultural group I could think of. Anyway I’ve branched out a little since then and reached weird.

    Of course I only got “normal” on height and weight if you count the entire population, not just adult males. (I’m 5.6″, 61kg.) Which gives you an idea of one of many ways where “normal” can make you an outsider.

    Curiously, around about now if you add it all up I guess you might say we’d had “2.4 kids”. (Alas, we’re not pregnant.)

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