Thoughts on "neurotypicality"

2009-04-19 13:05

The term “neurotypical” as a catch-all for non-autistic people really bugs me. It bugs me because it’s patently untrue; someone with severe bipolar disorder is not neurologically typical.

That said… It’s the word everyone got used to, so at this point we just have to overlook the etymology and accept that this is the word that got picked. Language is like that. Words are the words we use, not the words we should have used if we’d had someone carefully pick the right meanings.

The classic source is, of course, the Institute for the Study of the Neurologically Typical. This site seems to me to be the origin of the term, and has the unusual trait that it’s among the least smug and insulting of the pages I’ve seen using the term. A lot of autistic people like to be pretty harsh on the “NTs”; I’ve been thinking about why. I think it has roots in how people, especially non-autistic people, think about autism.

The term researchers like is “autism spectrum disorders”. As the term suggests, there’s a pretty broad range of autistic people. They aren’t all the same. What this means is that it gets pretty frustrating for people who are basically able to function to get lumped in with people who can’t dress themselves. A recent article in The Economist referred to autistic people as lacking “Theory of Mind” (the awareness that other people have separate minds and knowledge). It is obviously untrue that all autistic people lack theory of mind. But it is true that some do, apparently.

Failure to make that distinction is frustrating. I think that’s one of the points of writing about “neurotypicals”; part of the point is to make claims which are just a bit too broad, to help communicate what it’s like to be part of a category that gets all lumped together. It’s also, of course, a natural human quality to tend to lump things together once we have a name for them. Part of the brilliance of the thought of talking about normality in the terms we’d use for a disorder is that we unconsciously assume that things which fit in a category are more-similar than things we haven’t categorized. (This is one of the reasons many people seem to think that “gays” have much more stereotyped and similar sex lives than “normal people”.)

People argue over whether autism is a disability or merely a difference. In mild cases, it seems to be both an advantage and a disadvantage. Is it good or bad? Why, yes. It’s both. Making it work better or worse depends on making informed choices about personal strengths and weaknesses — the same thing everyone should be doing, really. It’s a disadvantage that I have trouble reading faces; it’s an advantage that I can make decisions without being driven to unconsciously agree with people.

I think it’s useful to recognize that there’s a real disability here — there are things I can’t do, or at least can’t do without exceptional effort. There are things that I can only do if I think of them, which other people would do automatically and without effort. At the same time, it goes the other way. I don’t particularly need the government to support me as though I couldn’t earn a living, but it’s helpful if people just accept that I’m not “a people person” very much, and let me get on with being good at the things I’m good at.

But think about how it would work if we tried to do the same thing for non-autistic people. “It’s okay, we understand that you’ll never really be much good at mathematics. Just be sure you smile a lot at the students and connect with them personally.”

Peter Seebach

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Comment

  1. Just like how you have to get out of your own continent to truly understand human culture and civilization, you have to get out of your own head to understand the human mind. The problem with for me is that the whole thing seems so complicated I just want to throw my hands up in the air and give up trying to understand.

    For example, I am bad at math. Doing it is painful. Abstractly, I like the subject. I really want to do well in it. I also have a poor work ethic. Why am I this way? Malcolm Gladwell says it’s hard work. Then again, there’s dyscalculia (http://tinyurl.com/b4drje) and I wonder if it comes in a wide range of severities that a lot of people have. There is just a lot of information and possibilities to consider.

    Trent Eady · 2009-06-19 21:27 · #

 
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