Is Neurotypicality Real?

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Neurotypical: the opposite of Neurodivergent.
Neurodivergent: having a neurology that diverges from the norm, for example mental illness, psychiatric disability, intellectual disability, processing differences.

With the above definitions in place, I’m going to say it: there’s no such thing as neurotypicality. Neurotypical people do not exist. They’re unicorns.

Neurotypicality is an abstact concept, an idea. It’s like the idea of the “perfect human specimen” – it is a concept built from a set of averages. In physical health, the Medical Model is built on this idea of the perfect specimen. The set of measurements including height, weight, body mass, body composition and ability averaged over a large sample and identified as the “ideal” because that’s the consensus on how a human body works. In this model, any deviation from this imaginary human standard is considered to be a problem that needs to be fixed. The difficulty is that examples of people who fit every single parameter of how a human body should work are vanishingly rare, I suspect so rare that you’d be hard pushed to find even one. This is not because of the declining health of the human species, by the way, it’s just a statistical fact. It’s a bit like the lottery, your chance of winning decreases with each number you have to match in order to win. To be a perfect human specimen, you have to hit the right point of the bell curve on every single medical measure we have. Not meeting all, or even most of those measures does not mean there’s anything wrong with you, though. Most people meet enough of the criteria to fit roughly into the “normal” box, “healthy” or “non-disabled”. Middle-of-the-curve averageness.

The same applies to our minds. Neurotypicality is the idea of the perfect average brain, and because the workings of our brains are harder to see, variation is also harder to see. Society has a consensus of how the average person thinks based on how the average person behaves. Again, there are a great many axes on which this is scored. Let’s take one axis for example: attention span. Some people have very long attention spans, some people have very short ones, but the majority of people have an in-the-middle one. We define that as the “normal” attention span. If you just diverge from the norm on that one axis, it’ll be put down to individual quirks and pretty much accepted by the herd. Start adding all the other axes, and it’s likely that nobody will be “normal” on every single one, just like with the physical example above. Again, when you start to diverge on multiple axes, people notice, and the medical model leaps in to diagnose you with some form of deficiency.

So in common parlance, neurotypical means:

  • non-autistic
  • non-schizophrenic
  • non-dyslexic
  • non-ADHD
  • non-ADD
  • not having PTSD
  • not having depression
  • not having an anxiety disorder
  • non-bipolar
  • non-dyspraxic
  • not having a sensory processing disorder
  • not having an auditory processing disorder
  • not having a phobia
  • not having an eating disorder
  • not having an addiction
  • not being antisocial
  • not having a behavioural disorder
  • not having borderline personality disorder
  • not having psychosis
  • not having any obsessive or compulsive disorders
  • not having any delusions
  • not having insomnia
  • not having hypersomnia
  • and many, many more

But the big, important point is this one:

  • not diverging in any way noticeable to themself or others from the socially-accepted “norm”.

Do you know anyone like that, someone who has not only no diagnosable (not necessarily diagnosed) neurodivergence, but also no noticeable quirks? Probably not, and if you do there’s no way to know what their experience of the world is like, and whether they’re masking some kind of difference to fit in. What this means in theoretical terms is that there is no such thing as neurotypical people, but there is a consensus of neurotypical behaviour, a standard which people meet or don’t meet on a spectrum. Those of us who we recognise as neurodivergent are simply those who don’t meet the standard of neurotypical behaviour to such an extent that it’s very noticeable.

This should not be confused with unhelpful sayings like “everyone’s a little bit autistic”. These aren’t true. Autism (and any other diagnosable divergence) is a collection of traits that are outside the average. To be autistic means to have an unusual score in a specific set of traits, any one of which would be overlooked on its own. To be neurodivergent in the way that the neurodiversity movement uses the term is to be above the threshold where your traits are no longer considered quirks but are so numerous or extreme that they are regarded as symptoms. The fact is that we’re all neurodivergent, because none of us exhibits the perfectly normal brain that sits neatly in the middle of the bell curve for every kind of human behaviour. Most of us, however, have the advantage that we’re only a little bit different from that idea; not so much that it causes us to struggle to move through the world.

This is where it ties in with the Social Model of Disability. When your difference becomes pronounced enough that you struggle, then your quirk becomes a disability. Again: there’s nothing wrong with being different, even if you’re very different from others, it’s just that the world is set up based on this consensus. Enough people work the same way on that particular axis that things are set up to favour them. Take height for example. Most people fall within a range of heights, so doorways, ceilings, shelves etc. are built with the average in mind. If you’re significantly shorter or taller than this average range, then life will be harder as you won’t be able to get through doors comfortably, or reach shelving easily. Socially, we have similar conventions about the way people operate. The core of the Neurodiversity Paradigm is that there’s nothing wrong with differing from this set of assumptions, diversity in these characteristics is a perfectly normal and natural expression of human variation and we should seek to modify our assumptions and how they shape our world, rather than modifying ourselves.

When we say “neurotypical”, we’re using it as a shorthand for the set of assumptions and the resulting expectations society has about how humans operate. We’ve also got into the bad habit of using it as a shorthand for people who fit in with those expectations. When we criticise “neurotypical people”, it’s not about your neurotype, it’s about the benefit afforded to you by fitting in with those expectations. It’s about the privileged position where you can get away with being uneducated about divergence and diagnosably divergent people. It’s about the dominant culture and the way it excludes divergent people, and how your behaviour as part of that in-group feeds into our oppression. We don’t have a problem with the way your brain works; we have a problem with the idea that it’s the “right way” for a brain to work.

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