Normal Is Overrated

Musings and meanderings on the autistic spectrum

April 2, 2010

If it looks like a duck…

So today is, of course, World Autism Awareness Day.

As you might also be aware if you happened to look at Google’s home page today, it’s also the birthday of Hans Christian Andersen, author of numerous well-known folktales. Among many other stories, he wrote “Thumbelina,” “The Little Mermaid,” “The Emperor’s New Clothes”… and, of course, “The Ugly Duckling.”

“The Ugly Duckling” is a story that Andersen himself has admitted was based on his own experiences growing up. And it’s always resonated with me as well, as an autistic living in a neurotypical world. Despite all efforts to be accepted, I’ve never quite felt like a duck neurotypical; I only truly felt free, free to be myself, when I learned of the autism spectrum, when I learned that I behaved and perceived things differently because I was different.

Think about it. How many times do we see autistic people described as broken neurotypicals, rather than as individuals with their own distinct thought patterns and processing styles? How many times do we see people trying to make their autistic children behave like them, rather than letting them exhibit entirely harmless behaviors that just happen to be trademarks of autism?

And isn’t it all a bit like expecting a swan to look and act like a duck, when it is, in fact, a shining example of a swan?

Though it may seem a bit strange to think of a fairy tale as a shining example of autism awareness, it does seem as if people could learn a lot about it from “The Ugly Duckling.” And it amazes me how many people haven’t even considered that analogy.

Filed under: General — codeman38 @ 10:56 am


  1. You’re so right. All of the fairy tales you mentioned can remind me of autism. Thumbelina was written in part based off Anderson’s experience with bullies. The tiny lady is at a disadvantage because the world is not made for her. The Little Mermaid is a story about a mermaid manipulated into giving up her own voice and comfort to fit into another world. While the mermaid wanted to live in the human world, this wish of hers was corrupted, and that can be symbolic of how autistics are taken advantage of by being told they have to be neurotypical and give up their own voices to belong to the neurotypical world. The mermaid having to win the love of the prince also fits into this symbolism. Many neurotypicals often assume that one must have a sex life to have, well, a soul, which is what autistics are accused of not having. The Emperor’s New Clothes applauds speaking blunt truth in the face of adversity. The wise child who points out that the emperor is naked is akin to the autistic who speaks truth regardless of what people want to hear.

    Your analogy regarding The Ugly Duckling is what the tale caused me to think of, as well. Hans Christian Anderson’s stories are great, great parallels to autistic experiences. This makes me glad that Autism Awareness Day and Anderson’s birthday are one and the same.

    Comment by Aria — April 2, 2010 @ 1:52 pm

  2. @Aria: Ooh, great points on all of Andersen’s other tales too! I’ve always thought of myself as being somewhat like the kid from The Emperor’s New Clothes too…

    Comment by codeman38 — April 2, 2010 @ 1:53 pm

  3. World Autism Awareness Day…

    World Autism Awareness Day: One day, or one month, isn’t enough. Adults with Autism From Normal is OverratedIf it Quacks Like a Duck Parents’ voices: From Both Hands and A Flashlight: Be Aware—For Parents Be Aware — For Friends and……

    Trackback by Trusted.MD Network — April 2, 2010 @ 3:48 pm

  4. I always took the ugly duckling story the other way, mostly because I always had people tell me I must be a swan, and I would be so much happier when I went somewhere else. It felt like they were trying to get rid of me.

    Not that I’m invalidating your take on the story. It all depends on context.

    Comment by Anemone — April 2, 2010 @ 7:47 pm

  5. @Anemone: Hm, interesting. Never really thought about it that way, to be honest; you’re right, it does depend on one’s personal context!

    Comment by codeman38 — April 2, 2010 @ 8:50 pm

  6. hello there. i just happened to past this page on my search for what does “being normal is over-rated mean?” and i have to agree that everything said is so true. i love the way u put aspects and themes of movies into different situations. makes it all so right.
    and one more thing. i really am so lost. by any chance can u tell me what normal is over-rated mean? i’ve searched alot and i’ve asked friends but i really am cluecless on knowing precisely what it means.

    Comment by snow — April 6, 2010 @ 6:16 am

  7. @snow: Umm… it means that normality is given too much importance… that people have a much higher opinion of acting ‘normal’ than they ought to.

    Comment by codeman38 — April 6, 2010 @ 10:00 am

  8. Normality or conformity? I have found, that many people, I can’t say most people but many, many people have experiences, desires, and ways of expressing themselves that are viewed in a punative manner due to non-conformity. Having returned from a place OF expression, from furries to people who spoke to themselves, or in a language only 5 other people spoke, and all of that was considered just, what was. To do everything from buying items, watching films and eating food while having a giant metal cone over your head and torso is just what is, not really unusual, though sometimes have to ask the people with really large wingspans to turn a bit and let me through. Is that a collection of Neurotypical? I dunno, I do know that the phrase I heard over and over again across years about gatherings of different types is ‘That is the only time I have felt I could be myself and not looked down, silenced or discriminated for it.’ It seems there might be a majority of ‘ugly ducklings’.

    As for the (is it ‘converse?’, ‘inverse?’) of neurotypical; that would be the neurologically atypical. Which until recently included everyone who had a brain wired in what society sees as a ‘female brain’ (high connections between hemisphere’s, emotion, language and sight connected) regardless of body. Gulliver’s Travel’s had a page at the start saying “This book not for women, children or men of weak will.” “Women are not mentally able to comprehend the complexities required for the vote” …for working as a manager, ….for working in science. Indeed, a man in Montreal went to campus when women were managing to get into engineering and science based fields and tried to kill ALL of them, because, they were ‘ugly ducklings’. They were ‘wrong’.

    Those who have had strokes, those with seizure disorders, those with other forms of scarring on the brain tissue – these are definately not neurotypical, yet neither particularly welcomed by a group establishing itself as ‘not neurotypical’, and those bashed with the ‘normal’ stick. Yet, would not these individuals also be bashed by the same ‘normal’ stick, and have the same stereotypes influencing thier lives, thier ability to work (indeed for seizure disorders, like many types of autism – their ability to be outside of an asylum of institution, to be able to work a job, to be treated as children or those who must be ‘watched’ and ‘cared for’ and not given a full adult equal voice for the rest of their lives?), and health care which accommodates them?

    Minority groups create two types of models: bridges or a fortress. Typically, seeing the majority around, it is the fortress style which then freezes the group, making the us and them distinction the one which is the most important (for Quebec, language and culture become inscribed to the point of bill 10 and 31 that buying software is illegal, that there are no curb cuts or beeps for the sight impaired but if the sign saying these don’t exist have english larger in any area than french, people can go to jail – Fortress: establishing the power within the area held of that group is more important than people). The problem with fortress is that people have names, all people have names, and conditions which are more diverse that a single type of wiring of the brain and after a while ‘neurotypical’, ‘muggles’, or ‘AB’ isn’t a description anymore, it is a designation (with negative and ‘the other’ plastered on it).

    A swan is always a swam, a duck is always a duck. The story to me is about trying to assign value to something which simply is. There are as many shining examples of ducks, hummingbirds, cranes as there are of swans. Because that is what is, and if the world is set up for only brown ducks, then all non-ducks and non-brown ducks suffer. I would just hope that in the desire for self identity, another ideal world is not created which makes those who are not (insert the requirement) feel just as excluded.

    Comment by Elizabeth McClung — April 6, 2010 @ 9:05 pm

  9. As you can maybe see, my pseudonym is the (french) name of a character from a tale of H.C.Andersen (the original name is Ole Luk’Oie and I don’t know the english name)
    I had already thought about the connection between the “Ugly Duckling” tale (in french:”Le vilain petit canard”) and the situation of autistics who lives in a society where they are expected to act like neurotypicals.
    Thank you for having made a post about that.

    Comment by Ole Ferme l\'Oeil — April 9, 2010 @ 9:44 am

  10. I always liked the story the ugly duckling because I told myself that someday I would be the beautiful swan and now it’s comming true.

    Comment by zellie — April 15, 2010 @ 5:51 pm

  11. I always identified with the ugly duckling story, i felt deep down that that was me. The trouble was, despite my best efforts, and all my expectations, i never stopped being the ugly duck. It took me till my 50s to figure out why. Can’t say i really feel like a swan now, but at least i’m with my own kind, so we can be ‘ugly’ together – and occasionally, really beautiful.

    Comment by kiwipen — May 1, 2011 @ 6:05 am

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