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Who is "Neurotypical"?

"Neurodiverse" and "Neurotypical" are words we had to invent because there were no words for "People who have brains that work in a way that's close enough to average to be called average by the general observer," and, "People whose brains are demonstrably not average." You can't say "cognitively disabled", because some atypical conditions like synesthesia and giftedness aren't disabilities. You can't say "abnormal", because that implies disease and is rather pejorative anyhow. Thus we use the word "Neurodiverse" to cover a huge range of atypical brains, starting with autism but covering everything from intellectual disability, post-stroke, TBI, and developmental brain issues, to savant syndrome, synesthesia, and giftedness.

"Neurotypical" is not just a word for people who are not autistic. It's a word for people who fall roughly in the (statistical)  normal range for cognitive functioning and neurology. It started in the autism community, but it's a word that is useful for other groups, too.

If you want to say, "People with ADHD are not (usually) on the autism spectrum", you may say, "People with ADHD are (usually) non-autistic."
"Not autistic" covers neurotypicals, as well as people with atypical brains who do not have autism; we didn't need to make a new word to cover people who weren't autistic, because we already had an easy way of saying that. But to talk about people whose brains weren't remarkably unusual, without using the term "normal" (the connotations of "normal" and "abnormal" carry too much baggage to be used as neutral terms), we needed a new word. So we use "Neurotypical."

We're not the only group that does this. For example: Cisgender (opposite of transgender); heterosexual (opposite of homosexual); able-bodied (opposite of physically disabled); sighted (opposite of blind); hearing (opposite of deaf/Deaf); people of color (opposite of white); indigenous (a group of people who already lived in a place when another group invaded or settled there). Some words are adapted from words that already exist. Some words are invented. They're often ways to talk about things without using the term "normal", because "normal" implies quite a lot of things that we don't mean when we talk about the majority as opposed to the minority.

Because the human brain is so unique and so different from person to person, even "neurotypical" is a rather broad range. Neurotypicals may become artists, surgeons, politicians, or soldiers; their brains are flexible and can train to deal with all of those things. They have widely varying personalities, from the introverted bookworm to the charismatic cult leader, the impulsive adrenaline-addicted extreme athlete and the careful, detail-oriented archeologist. So we can't say they're all the same (that would be silly, nonsensical, and more than a little offensive)--but they all think in a way that's close enough to average that they fit into the way the world works without having to make major adjustments. They are also valuable as communicators and connections for the neurodiverse, because their cognitive flexibility and social talents allow them to--if they desire to do so--communicate with people who are very different from themselves. This allows the neurodiverse to contribute to their societies, when neurotypicals accept and include them, and strengthens the whole society as a result.


I think this is the first definition of neurotypicality and neurodiversity I've seen that included giftedness as part of neurodiversity (and thus an IQ under 130 as part of neurotypicality). Although the IQ is perhaps my least favorite part of being NT, it might have a certain advantage: keeping me humble. A Gifted friend of mine is an unshakable supporter of alternative physics and alternative sociology (a nice way of saying crank and conspiracy theorist), trusting his own common sense over scientific methods designed to correct as best as is possible for the biases found in virtually all humans, even Gifted ones. Some great Gifted scientists, after all, such as Tesla (whom this friend of mine admires), end up going astray on some of their ideas. I'm wrong enough times, and catch myself being wrong enough times, that I can buy into skeptical principles and not trust myself too much when it's unwarranted.
Absolutely. Gifted people are wrong all the time. Anyone, gifted or not, who loses sight of the fact that they can be wrong, risks not catching the mistakes they make. Making mistakes is normal and expected--but if a person believes that they either are, or ought to be, infallible, the mistakes stick around and build up.

This is part of why I really dislike the practice of grading and ranking students, and emphasizing grades as though the goal of learning were to get a grade. People raised in that system learn to be very afraid of making mistakes, and that keeps them from learning nearly as well as they could. With grades as the goal, the feedback that's so necessary to learning ("You forgot to carry the one, so your answer is ten fewer than it should be") becomes punitive and feared.

Edited at 2014-03-25 01:28 am (UTC)
Aw, man, totally concur on the problems with emphasizing grades and ranks. "Mindset" by Carol Dweck, a book based on research about this subject and how it messes with (primarily NT) schoolchildren, is the story of my life. Thankfully I've been working on recovering from the damage that's done to me. As a professional scientist, I've been gradually learning to take failure less and less personally and more as the life-experience equivalent of a null study: valuable information about what can go wrong and how it might thus be fixed.