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.