What Does It Mean to Be Neurotypical?

How the Term Neurotypical Evolved

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The word "neurotypical" is quite new, but it is becoming increasingly popular in schools, at autism conferences and events, and in therapists' offices. It has no absolute medical or psychological meaning. It doesn't describe a particular personality, trait or set of abilities. Instead, it is really best understood in the negative:

"Neurotypical" means, simply, not autistic or otherwise diagnosed with an intellectual or developmental difference. In other words, neurotypicals are people who are intellectually, cognitively, and developmentally typical.

In short, a "neurotypical" person is an individual who thinks, perceives, and behaves in ways that are considered to be "normal" by the general population. 

What Is "Normal?"

It is, of course, possible to have no diagnosed developmental or intellectual disorders, and thus be definable as neurotypical. But there is a significant difference between "normal" and "not diagnosed."

In fact, "normal" perceptions and behaviors vary radically depending on culture, gender, situation, socioeconomic level, and many other factors. In some cultures, for example, direct eye contact is expected; in others it's considered rude; in some cultures physical contact with relative strangers is considered normal while in others it's considered odd and off-putting.

Other behavioral differences, while not a result of a developmental or intellectual disorder, can be marginalizing. For example, LGBT individuals may find themselves on the outside of many social groups without having any neurological challenges to cope with.

The same is true of members of certain religious groups.

Neurotypicals in the Context of Neurodiversity

The neurodiversity movement is built around the idea that developmental differences such as autism and ADHD are not disorders to be treated but differences to be respected. Members of the neurodiversity movement are often opposed to the idea of a cure for autism.

By 2014, the term "neurotypical" had become common enough to become the title of a PBS documentary featuring autistic individuals describing their own perceptions of themselves in relationship to "normal" society: Via the worlds of 4-year-old Violet, teenager Nicholas and middle-aged wife and mother Paula, along with provocative interviews with other autistics, the film recounts the challenges they face living among "normal" people--whom many of them call "neurotypicals."

The concept of neurodiversity is controversial. Many parents of autistic children feel that autism is, indeed, a disorder that should be prevented and cured. Quite a few autistic self-advocates share that perspective. To a large degree, differences in opinion relate directly to differences in personal experience. When autism is extremely limiting or causes significant physical or mental distress, it is usually seen as a disorder. By the same token, when autism is a source of ability and personal pride, it is generally seen as an asset.

Neurotypicals from an Autistic Perspective

From the point of view of the autism community, neurotypicals are generally assumed to have certain qualities in common -- usually those qualities that are often described as the "deficits" or challenges of autism.

Specifically, neurotypicals are assumed to:

On the flip side, neurotypicals are sometimes looked down on by people on the autism spectrum because of their willingness to unquestioningly follow social and societal dictates.

For example, neurotypicals are assumed to be more likely than people with autism to:

  • take part in inane small talk;
  • tell white (or not-so-white) lies;
  • go along to get along even when it means behaving immorally;
  • hook up sexually without much regard for long term emotional outcomes;
  • bully others in order to gain social status;
  • become competitive or jealous.

There are very few people who actually fit the neurotypical stereotype as described above. Many non-autistic people who would not qualify for any developmental diagnosis are shy, socially awkward, and have a hard time establishing and keeping friendships and romantic relationships. In addition, of course, there are plenty of "normal" people who avoid hookups, bullying, small talk, and other problematic social behaviors.

Sources

Merriam Webster Dictionary. Neurotypical. Merriam Webster. Web. 2017.

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