“Neurotypical:” For want of a better word.

There’s a new post up at “The Tumultuous Truth,” questioning the accuracy and usefulness of the term “neurotypical.” (“Neurotypical. Who Exactly?“) It’s a short post (just three paragraphs) but it packed a punch for me, since I’ve been using the term “neurotypical” for years, without realising what I was doing. I was originally going to simply comment on her post, but I realised my response was a blog topic in itself. (This post will make sense without having read her post first, but I still encourage you to pop over and have a read of her original piece.)

I first heard the term “neurotypical” from a fellow autism parent, at a playgroup for autistic preschoolers. I came to use the term in the same way she did; as a convenient short-hand way to delineate when I was talking about people who have autism, and when I was talking about those who don’t. Later, I found that other bloggers freely used the term too, so by using it myself too I felt like I was “talking the talk;” like I was using the correct lingo. I’d go so far to say that using the term gave me a sense of “belonging” to the community; “outsiders” were always unfamiliar with the word.

For me, the term was comparative to the use of “non-Jewish” from when I attended a Jewish primary school: We needed a simple way at the school to talk about who was Jewish and who wasn’t, since it impacted on what classes you took and what religious events you had to attend. It wasn’t a judgement of any sort, merely a useful descriptor of “X” versus “not X.” So I’d grown up from very young understanding the function of a term that isn’t meant to tell you everything about a person, but is useful in context to quickly convey relevant information.

But “neurotypical” is not the opposite of “autistic;” no matter how I and others use the term, it conveys more than some simple negation. The word “typical” and the reference to the brain via “neuro,” is fundamentally another word for “normal.” A kinder word, with less baggage one supposes, than saying person Z is “normal” and person Y is “autistic.” However, the word itself, because it is not a simple negation of “being autistic” carries its own baggage, some intentionally added:

I’ve heard the word “neurotypical” being used pejoratively; to put-down those whose thinking and experiences are not autistic. To say that these people are less, are boring, are run-of-the-mill, and that their views carry less weight and importance because they can’t escape their limited neurology.

Moreover though – and more widely – the term is used to replace the word “normal.” (A point made nicely in a comment on the original post, by Jon Brock from Cracking the Enigma.) And a replacement of the word “normal” is still going to carry with it the implications that autism is ab-normal (or a-typical, if you will). So, it’s not clear it’s escaping the negative association, anymore than replacing the word “retarded” with other words, is actually going to do much good unless you deal with the underlying misunderstandings and attitude issues. (I’m strongly against the use of the word “retarded” as an insult, but that is a different point than mere replacement of words.)

As pointed out in the original post by The Tumultuous Truth, the idea that there is “normal” and then there is “autism,” also over-simplifies the enormous diversity of the everyone else. It is one thing to say that person X doesn’t have autism, it is completely another to say they are therefore “neurotypical,” or have typical neurology: Those two statements simply are not the same. As the writer also so rightly points out, the idea that you can group all autistic minds in one way and compare that entire group to the minds of those without autism, also over-simplifies and distorts the huge variation among autistic minds too. Which is to say, from either direction or perspective, the term is doing a disservice.

To push the point further, there is no simple divide between autistic and not autistic, in a way that would make this type of language division useful. For example, if someone is autistic but undiagnosed, does that mean they’re neurotypical, or autistic? And if the word isn’t then tied to confirmed diagnosis, then what are you actually claiming when you say someone is neurotypical; aren’t you simply making an assumption about something you have no knowledge of? The word “neurotypical” seems to be too tight a divide. It would make more sense to say they are the undiagnosed, or “possibly autistic” or – better yet – just don’t presume at all; the use of the term “neurotypical” is typically used to separate strongly those who have autism and those who don’t, and the reality isn’t that straight-forward.

I suppose one could be more precise: There are those with autism, those with other neurological differences, and those who are neurotypical. But then “neurotypical” loses its primary function of saying “someone without autism.” Furthermore, you are left with the question of “what is typical anyway;” what makes someone out as normal neurologically. Again, if the term is only used in reference to autism, then we fall back on the same problem of those who face other neurological challenges – and different ways of thinking and being – being lumped in together with everyone else.

As Jim (from Just a Lil Blog) points out in a comment on the original post, what term would we use instead, even when we see the problem with using “neurotypical?” “Not autistic” is cumbersome, even though it is the most accurate meaning we’re after when we say “neurotypical.” Perhaps though, cumbersome more-accurate language, is the lesser of two evils here.

We could get inventive of course. Maybe NT-NOS (neurotypical , not otherwise specified), or ~ASD (not ASD). Useful perhaps for computer speak, not so much for everyday verbal conversations. Surely there’s another way to refer to “those who don’t have autism” without pretending they’re all thereby “normal” or the same as each other.

With these issues and questions in mind, I’ve decided the term neurotypical is not functioning the way I wanted it to, and the way many use it. It comes with connotations and meaning that goes beyond “the negation of having autism.” As useful as it has been to have a word widely understood to mean “not autistic” and to have the helpful abbreviation “NT,” I’m going to make a conscious effort to stop using it (even though I don’t have a replacement term yet). My thanks goes to The Tumultuous Truth for raising this, because I had not given it adequate thought prior, and it is worth thinking about. I’d love to hear your thoughts too.

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31 Responses to “Neurotypical:” For want of a better word.

  1. nzpam says:

    Great point. I read the original post and comments from your link, too. Language is always developing, i love language. I think i’m leaning more towards not even mentioning where on the neuro-spectrum anybody is unless it’s relevant to a specific situation (eg. school). It’s difficult to remain aware of the words we use, but it’s very good for our own clarity of thought to try. Thank you.

    • And thanks for your thoughtful comment nzpam, I agree with your sentiment that it’s better just not to say it one way or the other unless the information is immediately relevant and useful to the situation.

  2. Niksmom says:

    Why not use either the Greek or Latin prefix connoting “not?” I would think either no autistic or anautistic would convey the meaning of one without autism who is is not necessarily “typical.”

    • “Anautistic” has a nice ring to it, but is just too close to “an autistic” of course. “No autistic” is probably even more cumbersome than “not autistic.” Good thoughts though, I’m interested in hearing ideas on what words or phrases would serve better than “neurotypical.” Thanks for your comment.

  3. Shazza says:

    Oh wow, so much here that I considered prior to writing my post but wasnt sure how to succinctly make the points. You have, as usual, articulated the issues beautifully.

  4. Kim Wombles says:

    Excellent post. I don’t think there’s anything such as neurotypical–we are all different and have our own unique way of perceiving the world. I have noticed some individuals insisting that autism is NOT a spectrum, that one is either autistic or NT, and I have to hope that idea will not catch on. I recognize many of my children’s traits in my husband, my extended family members, and myself.

  5. Jack says:

    I understand what your saying, well I think I do. Labels are bad and too blunt. But isn’t this all a little too much PC? At the end of the day, people who are not exposed to children and adults who are autistic, whether they have a label or not, just don’t understand the issues and behaviours that those of us who do interact have to deal with all the time. If we can spend energy on agonising over labels then we are doing all right I recon.
    We are going round local school for our 4 1/2 year old. It’s hard to not use labels to just get across the point you want to make. Skirting around the ‘A’ word, not using the ‘NT’ word. Then when you mention that he is still toilet training the principle says, ‘well you should sort that out’ almost thump him. From a decile 10 school, what do you expect? Oh we can’t use decile ratings anymore, they have too much of a label. Sheesh

    • I am very sympathetic to not getting bogged down in PC language, however, I actually think that complaint goes in the other direction here: “Neurotypical” was introduced in a PC type fashion (some would say), replacing “normal” for instance. You could argue that it’s struggling (or failing) to fulfil that mission, for the reasons I gave in the post.

      At the end of the day, I don’t tell other people what words to use, I choose for myself. This post was reflecting on why I’m changing that choice, rather than telling everyone else to make the same choice I am (which would be more in line with a PC type agenda).

      And yes, that principal needs a thump and a wake up call. That would have upset me too. My son wasn’t fully toilet trained when he started school either, thankfully they were a special school so I wasn’t dealing with those sorts of attitudes and ignorance. Sorry you had to go through that.

  6. M.J. says:

    Honestly, I think the lexicon of neurotypical vs autistic vs autist vs whatever other term is in vogue is just plain silly. The only reason these terms exist is to delimit the world into neat little buckets when no such division is possible.

    The terms “normal”, “autistic”, or whatever other division you are going for are all vague because they refer an approximate range of behaviors that fall into the vast spectrum of human behaviors. On each any every single possible behavior, there are going to be ranges of behaviors where most people are going to fall (ie “normal”) and then the extremes on both sides.

    The word “autism” itself is nothing more than a shortcut or placeholder used to describe a group of behaviors that are at one of the extremes of the entire spectrum. You can’t denote the opposite with anything but non-autistic because there is no opposite in the same way as the opposite of redhead isn’t blond.

    Although, when it comes down to it, non-autistic is problematic as well. Just because you don’t exhibit the behaviors that put you into the autism bucket doesn’t mean that you don’t have behaviors that are even more to the extreme than even a person with autism has.

    So non-autistic doesn’t mean “normal” but rather that the person doesn’t meet the criteria for autism. Their behaviors are going to be either closer or further away from what the norm is in the same way as saying non-redhead can mean a hair color that is either darker or lighter. When you expand that concept across many different dimensions (as autism does) you are left with a concept were the opposite has no real meaning.

    Which is why I find it best to use the word autism to describe people who have behaviors consistent with the definition of autism, normal to denote people whose behaviors fall into the normal range of behaviors, and other specific labels to denote people who meet those labels. I don’t see anything wrong with using a word for its intended use.

    If I am feeling charitable and trying to not offend, then I put the word normal in quotes (“normal”) to try and convey that I am not making a value judgement. But honestly, I am feeling less and less charitable these days. In my experience, if someone wants to take offense at the word “normal” then they are going to take offense no matter what you.

    And, if I were feeling somewhat uncharitable, I might point out that the most of the people who use word “neurotypical”, again in my experience, use it almost as an insult and to explicitly set themselves apart from everyone else. And I would have to wonder why a group of people who say they are campaigning for acceptance first takes the time to draw a clear dividing line between them and everyone else.

    I would also have to wonder what these group of people actually have in common with the majority of people who share the label. On one hand you have many people with autism, my children included, who lack the functional communication skills to have even a very basic conversation in any medium and, on the other, a group of people debating the extremely nuanced meanings of specific words as they are commonly used. The former is very common in people with autism (ie somewhat “normal” for autism) while the latter is certainly not usually the case.

    • Very good comment MJ, and a good reminder about what “autism” actually means and refers to; the use of “neurotypical” does appear to assume too much about what the word “autism” actually captures.

    • Sunshine says:

      In my personal experience, I hear NT used very neutrally all the time… otherwise, I have to completely agree with you, about everything else. Right on.

  7. Hilary Stace says:

    The word ‘neurotypical’ came from the autistic self-advocacy movement to describe those who were not autistic, and to challenge the idea that they (the people with autism) were ones who were ‘other’. It is their term, and until the self-advocacy movement rejects it I will respect it. The companion/opposite term is neurodiverse. There is a very interesting book (2011) called ‘The politics of neurodiversity: why public policy matters’ by Dan Lee Baker, an American academic, which looks at the debates and issues, eg civil rights, diversity etc – she talks about the competing agendas in autism of cause, care, cure and celebration.

    • Perhaps it won’t surprise you that I take issue with the use of the term “neurodiversity.” I wrote a post a while back explaining the contradictions and confusions in the use of the term, and in the movement more generally. Someone from the movement did reply extensively to my post in a very general (and rather off-topic) manner, but didn’t actually respond to the points I made and the questions I asked. Perhaps you’d like to have a go: http://autismandoughtisms.wordpress.com/2011/08/06/acceptance-of-diversity-within-neurodiversity/

    • Paul says:

      I was going to say the same as Hilary. ‘Neurotypical’ is a word used among autistics to express solidarity. It would be odd for someone without autism to use the word unless they intended to express that solidarity. It’s a political word. Science uses ‘typically developing’ or TD.

      • I don’t know whether you mean “inappropriate” or “unusual” when you use the word “odd” here. The fact is that many others – parents, scientists, therapists, etc – use the word neurotypical. Whatever it’s origins, it has extended beyond that now; that much is clear. Whether that is for the better or not is a different question.

      • Paul says:

        I had no idea its usage had become more widely popular. By ‘odd’ I mean like when rich white kids use the argot of gangster rap (or whatever borrowed piece of popular culture is trendy today) without any irony or self-awareness. It stands out. I expect for ‘neurotypical’ the word gained popularity because it seemed more sensitive to use language created by the people you’re talking about – but if you ignore the political reason the word was coined, I can see how it would lead to the kind of dilemma in which you find yourself.

  8. nostromo says:

    I will occasionally refer to myself as non-autistic, or that I “do not have an ASD” but I no longer use the word neurotypical/NT mainly because no-one really agrees on what it is. E.g. would a person with schizophrenia, bi-polar or ADHD be considered neurotypical? There is disagreement. Also it is used with a wider and negative meaning to mean someone who thinks along the mainstream, is unimaginative etc.

  9. I use ‘nonautistic’, as I believe does Michelle Dawson. I can see how that would be preferable for those who like to use precise language.

    • I do like “non-autistic,” I think that’s the best option I’ve seen yet. Very close to “not autistic” of course, but an easier term to use for most of the situations where you’d want to use such a term. (“Autistic and not autistic people” versus “autistic and non-autistic people.”)

  10. Awesome post as usual.

    I guess it depends on the context. If I’m describing the control group in a study of autism, I tend to use “typically developing” if they are kids, but I struggle when it comes to adults. “Typically developed” just sounds wrong. I’ve started to use “non-autistic” more, but then sometimes that isn’t precise enough.

    The whole issue is that by saying “normal” you’re implying the autistic people are “abnormal”, and by saying “typical” you’re implying “atypical”, which isn’t much better. But here’s a thought – how about “ordinary”? The implication being that autistic people are “extraordinary” – which of course they are!!

  11. Hilary Stace says:

    I think of ‘neurotypical’ and ‘neurodiverse’ as indigenous terms that have come out of the autism self-advocacy movement. They are useful for them, and maybe not so useful to those who are don’t have that insider experience (although as an ooutsider I respect what they are trying to say). A parallel could be the use of the term ‘pakeha’ used by Maori to describe those who were ‘other’ ie not the indigenous inhabitants of NZ – but many of those labelled pakeha have problems with it. There are similar linguistic examples in other minorities. ..

    • That’s an interesting thought and comparison Hilary, quite insightful.

      Of course, in the same way that one group might call another a term that denotes their ‘otherness’ (such as pakeha, or neurotypical), it doesn’t mean the chosen term must be accepted by those who are labeled with it, or that the chosen term in accurate. I think that parallel is relevant here too. The term can also be used and intended as an insult – even if that was not the original intent when the term was coined – which also parallels here.

  12. Sunshine says:

    Ehhh. Excellent post. I keep wanting to comment to your post (and TT’s) in more detail, but I’m feeling about how you felt, now, and this has been such a thought provoking discussion, I probably need to ponder it a bit and maybe write down my own thoughts on my own blog. Thanks! Insightful as always.

  13. katkatkat says:

    In certain communities (tumblr? I think,, mostly) I have seen “allistic” and “allism” used to refer to the non-autistic population. I cannot find a good source for why that term was chosen or what population it is supposed to delineate. As far as I can tell it started as a satiric term used by neurodiversity advocates to make fun of organizations and individuals which push the “autism is a disorder that ought to be cured” model (as in, “what if allism was seen as a ‘disorder’?”) so I am not sure it is in wide use or a good term to use more broadly due to political baggage. (Although of course “neurotypical” is a pretty political term as well.)

    I have also seen there (and elsewhere in some social justice spaces) that people have indeed broadened “non-neurotypical” or “neuroatypical” to include those with mental illnesses and non-autistic psychological or neurological conditions (such as epilepsy). While I see the point of having an umbrella term for all of those people who have these sorts of conditions, it strikes me as 1. appropriative of autistic people’s experiences– it robs autism advocates of a useful word and conflates the issues and needs that people with autism have with the issues and needs people with other conditions have and 2. it is oddly medicalized terminology for social advocates, implying the atypicality lies with the brain rather than with broad differences and difficulties in functioning in “NT” society.

    • Very interesting insights katkatkat.

      I wasn’t previously aware of “allistic,” or the extended use of the term neurotypical in the way you bring up. Thank you for adding those considerations and thoughts to the issue, it definitely bears thinking about and adds another dimension to the discussion.

  14. This is a bit off the NT track (but I am now thinking that one through…)… This is about the word autism and the word “autistic”. First “autistic”. I am not crazy about using that word. I know there is ‘autistic disorder’ but after I read an article somewhere (!) about person first language, and it sat well with me, I try to do that. So now I (try to) say s/he has ‘autism’, or even ‘they have a diagnosis of autism’. Sometimes I may just say ‘he (my child) has a diagnosis’ (meaning: so back off-and stop looking at my son!) I apply first person first line of thought when talking about other conditions too…like s/he has diabetes (not ‘s/he is diabetic’), and s/he has epliespy (not ‘s/he is epiletic’). I don’t have autism, but my son does. I don’t like how I feel when people say ‘she has an autistic child’. That’s their entire summation of this one person. Maybe its denial-I don’t know… but Instinctively I want to say … he is many other things too like he is so funny, and good at maths and he loves the beach! Yes I know the disorder is pervasive (I live with the kiddo!) but still…Then there is the word ‘autism’…is that really the best word? I am seriously not convinced it is…and what about the word ‘disorder’ in AS disorder vs ‘syndrome’ in Asperger syndrome…ok-I am going to stop now…or maybe I will write a blog to sort out my own thoughts!

    • Hi kazbrook, I understand your issues and concerns, I’ve had many thoughts on the same topics. I’ve blogged on the “autistic” vs “has autism” one before if you’d like to see my view on it: http://autismandoughtisms.wordpress.com/2011/07/25/has-autism-versus-is-autistic-a-muddled-debate/ . In summary of that piece, my view is that there’s a better argument for using “autistic,” but that there are not strong enough arguments either way to justify telling others what words to use (not that I’m implying that’s what you’re doing though, that’s just the conclusion I reach in my post). If you end up writing on the topic, do perhaps let me know by commenting on that (or this) post, I’d like to see what you have to say and what conclusions you reach too :)

  15. http://kazbrooksblog.wordpress.com/ I just finished my blog entitled: An MRI Scan can get ‘messy’
    I have to say I have not only had to rethink neurotypical-but also autistic. Will read your blog about it I read an article last night http://www.autreat.com/dont_mourn.html that was confronting for me about the language I use. All in all a big weekend of thinking for me!

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