Welcome back! Yesterday we began our journey into the language of neurodiversity by going over the definitions of neuro* words that relate to the concept of neurodiversity. If you need a refresher, the previous post can be viewed here.

Today, we’re going to look more closely at the terms neurodivergent and neurotypical.

To begin, let’s refresh ourselves on the definitions of these words:

Neurodivergent (ND):

(adj.) having a brain that functions in ways that diverge significantly from the dominant societal standards of “normal”

Neurotypical (NT):

(adj.) having a mind/brain that falls within the dominant societal standards of “normal,” the opposite of neurodivergent. Neurotypical is to neurodivergent as straight is to queer.

Ok. So we have the basics down, but what exactly does it mean to be neurodivergent? Well, the answer to that question will vary depending on who you ask. There are some things that are generally agreed upon to be neurodivergencies such as Autism, ADHD, or schizophrenia. However, there are other things that are much debated. Is depression a neurodivergency? What about epilepsy? Or cerebral palsy?

To answer these questions, we must go back to our definition. To be neurodivergent is to have a brain that functions in ways that diverge significantly from what is generally considered to be “normal.” Working with this definition, neurodivergent covers a huge range of human experiences. Any mind that operates outside of the norm is neurodivergent.

As such, yes, epilepsy is a neurodivergence. Cerebral palsy is a neurodivergence. Developmental disorders such as Autism and ADHD are neurodivergencies. Mental “illnesses,” including depression and anxiety, are neurodivergencies. Learning disorders like dyslexia or dysgraphia are neurodivergencies.

Neurodivergencies are typically pathologized by society. They are labelled as disorders and those who have them are viewed as ill and/or lesser. Stereotypes of neurodivergencies abound in society and legitimate, helpful information is sparse. Autism is seen as a burden, a tragedy, a sentence worth than death. Schizophrenics are assumed to be violent and “crazy.” Those with depression are seen as weak or lazy. I could go on and on.

The negative stereotypes and myths of neurodivergencies are so abundant that many neurodivergent people believe these falsehoods and work to separate themselves from others of the same neurotype who are more noticeably different. We see this with “high-functioning” Autistics who work to distinguish themselves from “low-functioning” Autistics. We see this in people with depression who argue that they aren’t really “crazy” like those other people. We see it again and again if we take the time to look.

However, neurodiversity advocates argue that neurodivergencies, these variations of neurocognitive functioning that exist amongst the human race, are natural and valuable forms of diversity. We purport that neurodivergent people are not lesser or “wrong” for these differences, but, rather, that these variations add to humanity.

Neurotypical is not a synonym for normal. Neurotypical is not the only “healthy” neurotype. Neurotypical does not equal right or good. Neurotypical simply refers to those whose minds/brains work in the way considered typical by society.

Neurodivergence is neither inherently positive or negative. There are neurodivergencies that are largely innate, such as autism, that are fundamental aspects of a person’s psyche, personality, and fundamental way of relating to the world. The neurodiversity paradigm rejects the pathologizing of these forms of neurodivergence. Activists in the neurodiversity movement oppose “cures” or other attempts to get rid of these neurodivergencies.

Other neurodivergencies, such as epilepsy, whose removal would not erase fundamental aspects of the person’s personality or sense of self, and, in many cases, people with these neurodivergencies would gladly be rid of them. For these forms of neurodivergence, the neurodiversity paradigm does not reject pathologizing and neurodiversity activists do not object to consensual attempts to cure them while still rejecting any form of discrimination based on these neurodivergencies.

As such, neurodivergence is not inherently positive or negative. There are some neurodivergencies that are largely viewed as negative by those who have them while there are others that are simply viewed as a different way of being that is no better or worse than neurotypicality.

Further, while often used in this way, neurotypical does not mean non-autistic. Neurotypical is anyone who doesn’t have any form of neurodivergence. As such, there are many people who are not autistic but are not neurotypical either. For instance, a schizophrenic is not autistic but also not neurotypical.

Instead, allistic is often used to refer to non-autistic people. The term allistic was originally created by Zefram for use in a parody piece that treats allism as a newly discovered neurological disorder. [http://www.fysh.org/~zefram/allism/allism_intro.txt]. From there, the word has been adopted by much of the autistic community to refer to those who are not autistic.

However, the origins of this word are rather ableist (as is the term autism). Zefram created the term allism by dissecting “autism.” Autism comes from the Greek root “autos” meaning “self” and, as a complement to autism, allism comes from the Greek root “allos” meaning “other.” As such, autism can be taken to mean “self-oriented” while allism means “other-oriented.” This is an ableist view of autism rooted in the idea that Autistic people lack Theory of Mind.

As such, when referring to people who are not autistic, I generally just say non-autistic. Not only does this feel more comfortable for me, but it tends to make communication more accessible as it doesn’t require other parties to learn a new term.

This is not to say that Zefram was ableist in their creation of allistic, but rather that the term autism itself is ableist and that by dissecting the word in order to create its complement, this ableism was emphasized.

In summary:

  • Neurodivergent- having a brain that functions in ways that diverge significantly from the dominant societal standards of “normal”
  • Neurotypical- having a brain that functions in ways that align with the societal standards of normal
  • Neurodivergence is neither inherently good nor bad
  • Neurotypical ≠ non-autistic