The Denver Autism Wheel

Show me “normal”

Posted on: July 30, 2010

Probably the best use for "normal"

I heard a great quotation at the 2010 Autism Speaks convention: “Normal is a setting on the washing machine.” The more I realize that accepted social behaviors are kind of silly sometimes, the more I realize that “normal” is not a good way to describe people in general and might be more appropriately reserved for major appliances.

I’ve been reading Temple Grandin’s fantastic book Animals in Translation, described as ground-breaking, innovative, insightful and weird on the back cover. I haven’t found the weird parts yet, personally, but I’ve been around animals and humans for some time now, so maybe “weird” is in the eye of the beholder, too.

One of her many astute observations is that typical people don’t see things they don’t expect to see, but autistic people see everything (and feel, touch, smell, etc., everything, too). She points to the experiment involving a woman in a gorilla suit who comes in halfway through a basketball game. She says that more than half of the typical people watching the event on tape never saw the gorilla suit because they had been instructed to count how many times the players passed the ball. They could tell you how many passes they’d seen, but they couldn’t spot the completely incongruous gorilla suit, even when the woman wearing it was at the center of the screen. It wasn’t important to notice because they were busy counting.

I can’t tell you how much my perception improved because of being around Chris as a little boy. I never realized how much music we live around, how many unusual cars and trucks drive around day by day, how very strange it is to call a futile search a “wild goose chase” when we live in South Metro Denver, and wild geese are never far away during migratory seasons.

I think that’s because I didn’t realize it was important to notice these things until someone I loved started pulling on my sleeve in the grocery store to let me know that a Paul McCartney song he hadn’t heard before was playing over the PA (the kid’s a big Beatles fan, by the way). Of course, I’d heard the song out of the corner of my ear. But it had never occurred to me that the hearing of it was important. It registered, but I didn’t pay attention. They say that parents can turn everyday moments into teaching moments, using falling water as an example of how gravity works, teaching the difference between “smooth” and “rough” by feeling different surfaces…preschoolers explore the world with our help, learning what we think is important. But that teaching goes both ways; we can learn from our kids, too, suddenly noticing richness (and humor) that’s all around us: the gorilla suit popping out of an otherwise-nondescript crowd, Paul McCartney’s classic song brightening a boring trip to the grocery store. There’s so much in the world that I used to miss that I don’t anymore, and I have my autistic son to thank for it. My appliances can have “normal.” 🙂

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