I finished reading a science-fiction novel a few days ago, a book I enjoyed reading and highly recommend. It’s called The Speed of Dark, by Elizabeth Moon, originally published in 2002. The book concerns an autistic man (his name is Lou) who is given the chance to become “normal.” That is, he can take advantage of a procedure that will remove his autism and make him like everyone else. The chance to become “normal” is presented near the beginning of the book, and the majority of the book concerns Lou’s difficulty in deciding whether to take advantage of the treatment. (I won’t give away the ending, I suggest you read the book and find out if he accepts it.)
Elizabeth Moon, I found out after I read the book, has an autistic child, and her knowledge of autism certainly shows in the structure of the plot. She gets into the head of Lou in an exceptionally strong manner, and we are treated to a highly educated treatment of autism. I know little about autism, but what goes through Lou’s head, at the very least, sounds realistic. Lou is a part of a group of about six very high-functioning autistic people who work for a large corporation, but they have their own special section and do specialized work that “normal” people either can’t do or would have considerable difficulty doing. Lou looks for patterns in materials presented to him on a computer screen, patterns that “normals” wouldn’t see, because he notices patterns in everyday life on a regular basis. He lives by himself, drives a car, commutes to work daily, does his own shopping, and generally functions well in life’s routines. Lou’s struggle to decide whether to take the treatment stems from the probability he would lose his pattern-recognizing ability. He would become “normal.”
But as I read the book, that word, “normal” became somewhat of a problem for me. I wondered if it was being used correctly in that sense, and that’s why I’ve been putting it in quotation marks. To me, “normal” is an absolute. Something or someone is either “normal” or he/she/it isn’t. The other side of normal is “abnormal,” and the point was made in the book that Lou and his friends were certainly not “abnormal.” They were neither “normal” nor “abnormal.” Lou got along with others well, and had many “normal” friends. Clearly there’s a disconnect here.
The problem stems from the fact that humans, in terms of behavior and mental capacity, fall into a very broad spectrum, and there’s a very fuzzy line between normal and abnormal in that spectrum. The term “normal” doesn’t allow for that spectrum. I’m not a psychiatrist nor any sort of mental health worker, but schizophrenia is clearly “abnormal.” Some schizophrenics can be totally in their own world and don’t react to our world at all. But who’s to say someone like Lou is “abnormal?” He certainly has abilities most of us don’t, but does that make him “not normal?” I think the word “normal” is to blame for the problem.
My thesaurus defines “normal” as “common” or “usual” in one sense, and as “sane” or “rational,” in another. It also gives other synonyms for normal, but I tend to gravitate toward “usual” or “average” as a better term than “normal” for Lou’s situation. “Average” has quantitative connotations not present in “normal.” “Normal” is so absolute; “average” implies a bell-shaped curve centered around a midpoint. Lou isn’t “average,” and he would be well to one side of the midpoint, but he isn’t “abnormal.” If we use the term “average,” it’s a lot easier to see where Lou, and other autistics, reside in relation to the rest of the population. Normal doesn’t do that. “Average” is what the treatment he struggles to decide about would make him. It would bring him closer to that midpoint where the majority of us exist.
Are you “normal” or “average”?