Many parents, at some point, ask themselves this question. In fact, as a psychologist, author of parenting books and columnist for Mums and Dads Magazine, I am often approached by anxious parents who ask me 'is my child normal?' My first, and probably rather flippant response, is usually, 'goodness, I do hope not', for often, these 'not normal' kids are quirky, geeky, creative, individualistic and rather interesting little people; why would anyone want them to be boringly normal?
But, of course, the reality is that it takes parents of 'not normal' kids a long time to come round to this level of acceptance and prior to that, they are often plagued by angst that their little one is different from other kids. The reality is that most parents just want their children to fit in, to be socially acceptable, thrive at school and yes, be 'normal'. The idea that any difficulties might be due to a labelled syndrome, or 'special needs', is a frightening prospect for most.
So, how can you tell if your child is 'normal' (or 'neurotypical' as is known in the trade)? Most parents who are worried tend to talk of difficulties in either social life or behaviour (or both). Typical social concerns include:
• 'He has no friends'
• 'No one will play with him'
• 'She doesn't get invited to parties or playdates'
• 'She gets on better with adults than her own age'
Common behaviour worries include:
• 'He is aggressive'
• 'She flies into a temper frequently and at the slightest thing'
• 'He can't concentrate on his homework - but can watch TV for ages'
• 'She gets easily distracted'
• 'Everything is a battle with her'
Do any of these concerns indicate that there could be something wrong with your child? The unequivocal answer is 'it depends'. None of these concerns suggest there is a definite (ie diagnosable) problem but all of them could. It depends on the age of the child, the length of time they have been exhibiting the behaviour and, importantly, the range of habitats in which the child is like this. Children do go through phases and at times of transition (eg new term, new teacher, changes at home etc), could exhibit worrying behaviours. However, I always ask parents to look at the different arenas that their child moves in and to examine whether their problems manifest themselves in all of them. For example, there's many a child who is aggressive and 'oppositional' at home (especially with Mum - and this is actually a compliment as it reflects their confidence in her unconditional love), but their school has no concerns at all. There are children who are painfully shy in the playground, but mix perfectly well with select playmates that they have grown up with. Children who are eventually found to have 'special needs' like ADHD or Autistic Spectrum Disorder, tend to have difficulties in more than one area of their life, and quite often all. Their problems may be clearly manifested at home, school, after-school activities and social events.
My advice to concerned parents is to keep a diary of incidents that concern you about your child. Note what happened and where they were. Speak to the school - and not just their class teacher, but also lunchtime assistants who see your child in social settings. Observe them in parties or social settings too. You might want to share your concerns with other mums and ask for an honest opinion - though I am a little wary of this as most will try to reassure you ('Oh, my child does that - don't worry') and will only see a narrow range of your child's behaviours.
Once you have 'evidence', you might notice a pattern emerging. Perhaps your child tends to play up more when he is tired or anxious. Perhaps she is attention seeking, when you are preoccupied with her siblings. Or maybe your child is hard-going at home but sweet-natured in the classroom (I often advise parents that however difficult their child is with them, if they are OK around other people, there is probably nothing much to worry about).
If you have gathered all your evidence and believe that your child has 'significant' (admittedly, hard to quantify) difficulties or areas of concern in more than one area of their life, then you might want to think about getting him assessed. Take your diary and visit your GP and ask to be referred to 'CAMHS' (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) for an assessment (be warned, this could take several months).
And, if you do find that your child is 'different', well, may I be the first to congratulate you.