Donders Wonders Blog

“What is normal anyway?”

Normal is in the Eye of the Beholder

This post is also available in Dutch.

People on the autism spectrum may behave in unusual ways, leading to be perceived as not ‘normal’. But what is normal anyway? And does ‘normal’ equal right?

“What is normal anyway?” Image courtesy of Pixabay (CC0 Creative Commons)

Autism is a neurological difference rather than a disorder, as brains of people on the autism spectrum are wired differently. Yet, the prevailing belief is that people with autism are patients in need of treatment because some of their behaviors do not conform to social norms. Not everything, however, that is socially acceptable is right in itself.

One against a unanimous and wrong majority
Experiments by social psychologist Solomon Asch in the 50s revealed that, instead of always sticking to the truth, people occasionally choose to go with the majority’s incorrect judgement. More recent research carried out with children tells a similar story. When preschoolers have to give their answer in public rather than in private, children comply with a majority of peers, despite knowing that the majority judgement is incorrect. When the answer is given individually, children almost never commit errors. What is notable is that children with autism, unlike their neurotypical peers, tend to stick to the truth above all.

Children with autism stick to their guns when faced with peer pressure
A study that used a child-friendly version of the above-mentioned Asch’s conformity test showed that children with autism aged 9-11 years were less likely to conform to the majority than children without autism. In other words, children with autism are exceptional truth-tellers in that they resist peer pressure. The authors of the study did not attribute any particular reason to why this may be the case. There may be multiple reasons. One possibility is heightened attention to detail that all individuals on the spectrum demonstrate. Children with autism may be less likely to be led astray by their peers because they cannot help but be truthful to the nature of things.  

Reconsidering the normal
Is being almost immune to social pressure a deviation from the norm? Before you give your answer, please think about it a minute. Not everything that does not follow the majority’s behavior is flawed. In this case, it is people with autism who get it right while everyone else is quite easily misguided. However, precisely because it is a minority against a neurotypical majority, individuals with autism may be perceived as the ones with flawed behavior. Perhaps, it is not individuals who need to be remedied, but a society that needs a remedy. A remedy in order to make it a more welcoming place for everyone.

Written by Julija Vaitonyt?, edited by Francie Manhardt and Monica Wagner.

Julija Vaitonyt? is a research assistant in the Sign Language Linguistics group at Radboud University who is passionate about topics on social cognition, developmental science and language.


Asch, S. (1956). Studies of independence and conformity: I. a minority of one against a unanimous majority. Psychological Monographs: General and Applied, 70(9), 1-70.
Haun, D., & Tomasello, M. (2011). Conformity to peer pressure in preschool children. Child Development, 82(6), 1759-67.
Yafai, A., Verrier, D., & Reidy, L. (2014). Social conformity and autism spectrum disorder: A child-friendly take on a classic study. Autism: The International Journal of Research and Practice,18(8), 1007-13.


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