Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Why "Neurotypical?"

I keep thinking that I should write a little bit about the title of my blog, why I chose it, and what "Neurotypical?" means. When I check my Google Analytics stats, "neurotypical" tends to be one of the main search terms that people are using to find me, so I feel a little bad that I've never written about it. But, ultimately, I am not at all an expert in disability studies, neurodiversity activism, or people on the autism spectrum, so I apologize in advance if this piece misrepresents anything about the term or the movement. If you think I messed up, please leave a comment and I would be happy to respond to your feedback.

What does "neurotypical" mean?

Initially, the term "neurotypical" was used to describe any individual who does not have psychological or neurological traits that qualify them for diagnosis with an autism spectrum disorder. It has since been expanded by some to refer to anyone whose neurological development and present neurological state is consistent with what most would consider to be "normal." The use of "neurotypical" instead of "normal" is meant to remove stigma from people with autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders. Creating a dichotomy of "autistic" vs. "normal" puts people with autism into a marked class, while leaving non-autistic people as the default or unmarked class. A label like "neurotypical," on the other hand, is a neutral way to refer to a person based on their neurological state that does not "other" individuals who are in some way atypical. A great discussion of marked and unmarked classes (in the service of explaining why we should use "cissexual/cisgender" to describe people who are not transsexual/transgender) can be found in this post from Speaker for the Diodes.

Some people also use "neurotypical" as part of discussions advocating for neurodiversity. I don't want to put words into anyone's mouth, but as I understand it, the neurodiversity movement is about reframing some traits that are normally classed as pathological, such as atypical communication styles, sensory perception, or emotional regulation abilities. Neurodiversity activists seek to broaden the definition of "healthy" to reflect people whose behaviors might seem different from what we're used to.

For example, here's a video from Amanda Baggs, a woman with autism who is involved in activism within the autism community. Her way of interacting with the world is not typical, but that doesn't mean that she is somehow "less than" a neurotypical person:

In general, I think of terms like "neurotypical" and "neurodiversity" as reminders to check my assumptions and my privilege.

Why did you call your blog "Neurotypical?"

I'll admit it; I was mainly looking for a pun. I'm a neuroscientist and I was trying to think of good "neuro" titles. So, "Neurotypical" popped into my head. But then... I added the question mark!

In part, I was hoping to create some wordplay by writing about my "typical" life as a neuroscience graduate student, with the question mark implying that it may not actually be typical, or that I may not actually know what I am talking about... But, I think "Neurotypical?" also gets at some interesting questions about how we define mental illness and mental health. As someone who studies disorders and diseases of the nervous system, I think it's important to keep in mind the lived experiences of people who have been diagnosed with those disorders as we seek to develop treatments and therapies. It's appealing to me, as a scientist, to reduce everything down to a plain yes/no answer (p < 0.05), or a straightforward biochemical pathway, but nobody's mind is that simple. Do neuroscientists strive to make everyone neurotypical? Is that okay? Do we even know what that would look like?

Are you neurotypical?

That's another interesting question, and kind of personal. I will say that I am generally read as neurotypical; I don't commonly display any behaviors that lead people to think I have a neurological disability or disorder. However, that doesn't mean that I've never had any experience with neurological disorders or mental illness.

One example that I'm comfortable talking about publicly: My first year of graduate school, I suddenly began to experience frequent hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations. These "waking dreams" are vivid hallucinations that occur when you're falling asleep, or shortly after waking. They can be related to other sleep disorders, like narcolepsy or sleep paralysis, but I didn't have those. My experiences with them were very scary, and after they started happening, I was really worried that I might have schizophrenia (hypochondriac neuroscientists are great at self-diagnosis...), or maybe a brain tumor. I saw several doctors who told me that my symptoms were probably due to sleep deprivation. Then I moved into a different apartment, and I realized that my old apartment next to the train tracks had not permitted me to get a decent night's sleep for an entire year. The hallucinations went away almost immediately once I moved out of earshot of the proverbial midnight train to Georgia, and they haven't come back in the past 2.5 years.

Was I neurotypical during that year? Am I now? What about someone who suffers from clinical depression, but keeps it mostly controlled through medication and/or therapy? It's not always easy to define membership in a class, but society always seems to want to put people into nicely labeled categories. (The DSM is a good illustration of this urge...) I don't mean to draw false equivalence between my temporary experience with a sleep disorder and the very real stigma that someone on the autism spectrum experiences every day. I just sometimes wonder about how we define these classes, and how useful those definitions are.

I will also say that although I am read as neurotypical, I have friends and loved ones who are not, and that I feel very strongly about advocating for their rights. Finally, I have noticed that there are lots of people in the neuroscience community who could be called neuro-atypical, or who got into neuroscience because of their experiences with family members and others who have neurological or neurodevelopmental disorders. So, I think this is an area where neuroscientists could stand to learn more from people involved in disability studies scholarship, or social justice activism.

Where can I learn more?

Here are some resources that I've used to inform myself about disability, neurodiversity, and general issues related to social justice and progressive social movements. If you know of others, please leave a comment!

Temple Grandin's books and talks: Temple Grandin is a fairly well known writer who has autism. Her books describe what it was like for her to grow up "different," and how her autism makes her in some ways uniquely qualified for her work.

neurodiversity.org: A fairly comprehensive resource for the neurdiversity movement.

FWD: Feminists with Disabilities for a way forward: On the intersection of gender and disability. The blog has stopped updating, but the archives have some good discussions.

Shakesville: My favorite blog in the progressive blogosphere. Most of the content is written as part of an advanced feminist space and thus might be off-putting for newbies, but this piece about living with depression was really eye-opening for me, in particular.


  1. One problem: Amanda Baggs has psychogenic autism. If she had real Autism, then issues would have been spotted before she was three, not when she was a teenager.

  2. Highly-recommended reading for you (and everyone else): http://www.amazon.com/Field-Guide-Earthlings-autistic-neurotypical-ebook/dp/B004EPYUV2