Don’t fit in? Beware the label – you might just be normal

Crazy cross eyed young man in green pullover and with blank paper sticker glue to forehead

I watched the Channel 4 documentary, ‘Are you autistic?’. I found it very interesting and certainly a worthy cause. It makes me think back to primary school (1985 – 1994) and a kid in our class called Benjamin who was somehow just different. He had physical ticks, spoke in a posh kind of nerdy way (apologies, I can’t find a better word), despite coming from an ordinary working class background, and didn’t form friendships. He was generally in his own world, obsessed with dinosaurs, if my memory serves me well.

I once invited him round to my house and remember feeling that it was somehow hard to connect with him. Something was missing but I couldn’t possibly understand what. I also wasn’t sure what to do with him but in the end we picked some raspberries and ate them with milk. I was relieved.

As we approached 11 or 12, people started to be mean to Benjamin. They laughed at him and mimicked his ticks. I also remember seeing teachers get impatient with him. He certainly wasn’t getting any additional support. He must be one of the ‘lost generation’ – on the autistic spectrum but never diagnosed.

On the Channel 4 programme, we are given a good explanation of what autism is – that it is not just a linear spectrum, but exists across multiple dimensions. We are also told that perhaps a big reason why lots of women don’t get diagnosed is because they are very good at masking their symptoms.

Of course, if someone really is/feels that they are autistic, a diagnosis can be a massive help to them. But while I feel pretty certain that Benjamin must have been autistic, I can also remember lots of other kids at school who didn’t quite fit in, but probably weren’t autistic.

These days, we just seem so very keen to be labelled. People will say that they always felt different. They always struggled to fit in and felt that conventional social categories felt oppressive or unnatural. Sometimes it seems that the solution is to reinvent the system, as with non-binary gender definitions.

In our readiness to be labelled, we potentially polarise concepts of ‘normal’ and ‘not normal’. Yes, we have to draw a line somewhere but ‘normal’ should not be idealised; some kind of perfection. It includes many weird and wonderful variations. Deep down, lots of us (perhaps even the majority?) struggle to connect with others, or don’t quite manage to be ‘ourselves’: I know someone who makes lots of friends but tries to avoid seeing them because really, she just isn’t relaxed in their company. I know someone wants to boss people around but struggles because they don’t always do what he wants. I know someone timid who never quite managed to be ‘himself’ but has found a way to be someone, nonetheless.

Perhaps we struggle to be our authentic selves because connecting with others is always, on some level, an act. Normality is being a little bit messed up or weird in one way or another. But if we’re not careful, we will chip away at ‘normal’ until there is barely anything left of it.

All I’m saying is that a label, any label, should not be adopted lightly. A label provides reasonable explanation for certain behaviours, and can exempt a person from certain things. That can be a good thing because we certainly shouldn’t be giving ourselves a hard time and trying to force ourselves to be something we’re not. But it’s a fine line isn’t it? Because on the other hand, a label can abdicate responsibility; you don’t have to try any more, or analyse. A label can sometimes stop someone from delving deeper into the reasons for their problems – there can be too much focus on symptoms, without taking account of the multitude of possible causes for them. And a label can make you special.

How about this as an alternative: instead of letting a category (such as gender, or ‘normal’, or ‘happy’) define you, you define the category. You can own it. And maybe no one actually feels gendered/normal/happy anyway. Maybe most people just aren’t honest about that, or they act well.

To myself, I am just me, struggling along with my cerebral consciousness, gabbling away to myself neurotically. But I’m not miserable. I just am.