Friday, January 15, 2010

Difficulties with "neurotypical/neurodiverse" from a non-NT perspective

[In unrelated news, Haiti relief information pages I recommend:
Feministe page (the comments are important, the OP isn't familiar with all of hir listed charities!)
Skepchick page
Partners in Health and Doctors w/o Borders seem to be consistently well recommended.]

The definition and usage.

Wikipedia currently defines the term "neurotypical" as "a label for people who are not on the autism spectrum" (emphasis mine) and goes on further to state that neurotypicals (all not autistic people) are what "most" would perceive as "normal" (with regards to neurology & development).

The only real definition I can find via is this: "The term is used with varying degrees of seriousness. This ranges from a straightforward factual way to refer to non-autistic spectrum people to a more playfully tongue-in-cheek use in contexts which often strongly imply that the 'merely typical' are to be pitied..." (emphasis mine).

The term "neurodiversity" itself is, unsurprisingly, similarly centered on autism. I will note, though, that an assortment of non-ASD mental non-typicalities accompanies the Wikipedia definition, the source of which flippantly attributes this inclusion to nebulous "radical groups"*1.

Inclusive alternatives to this definition which acknowledge the existence of "non-typicality" outside of the autistic spectrum are out there. But the inclusive interpretation tends to show up only as an afterthought, if at all; I think the standard usage is as I have quoted.

And that exclusive usage, which makes the presumption of "neurological typicality" on the basis of simply not being on the autism spectrum, is a problem. The neurodiverse (neuro non-typical) umbrella ought to cover the whole range of neurologically nonstandard people, not arbitrarily restrict itself to the austism spectrum. As the language of these terms is inherently presumptuous, it seems entirely reasonable to expect that their usage respect those presumptions.

I want to stress that what I am complaining about is the apparent mainstream characterization. It is generally unclear to me what, precisely, is meant by the usage of these terms in the community itself*2. It's also not clear to me why the exclusivity of the terms persists; is it a lack of not!AS people identifying with the neurodiversity movement, is it the movement failing to recognize those idenities, is it both? And whatever it is, why?

The terminology itself.

The "neuro-" prefix seems problematic in a few ways.

Do those with "physical" neural difficulties - neuropathies, for example - "belong" under the neurodiverse umbrella? If so, why does little or no neurodiverse advocacy cover this issue? If not, how is the distinction made?

What counts as "neurological"? Autism itself, as far as I know, has no readily confirmed neurological cause - theories, yes, but no "smoking gun" evidence. Invoking neurology makes a statement about reality: that a given phenomenon can be explained with consistency by a physical cause within the nervous system. What is the rationale behind this assumption with regards to the neurodiverse movement?

Why exclude the psychological? Is this deliberate distancing? From this crazy's*3 perspective, it seems like it - psychos are unpalatable, so the neurodiverse movement is focusing on neurology as a way to clean things up for presentation to the neurotypical world. Similar, in my opinion, to the way the LG(b) community mandates innate, inborn (and genetic/neurological) sexuality as the only way sexuality works and censors exceptions and deviance in order to be more presentable. In this case, neurology (stereotypically inborn, genetic) takes the place of superiority to psychology ("not physical" and therefore stereotypically the person's "fault") and all the rationale stays the same.

The "-typical" in "neurotypical" also poses problems.

We say "heterosexual", not "sexualtypical". We say "cisgendered", not "gendertypical". These words have discrete meanings in and of themselves - they are not typicalities, not defaults. "Neurotypical" is a default. It has no more meaning than "normal". Decentering "default" notions is one of the points of having terminology like this in the first place.

Furthermore, not being neurotypical doesn't necessarily mean actually being "typical" with regards to neurology. Especially if neurotypical merely means "not autistic". There are any number of ways to be "atypical" which are being ignored by current terminology.

What's the alternative?

This well rounded defence of the term "cis" from detractors has a few implications for the point I'm making here. Particularly that an attack on the current terminology is worthless (or actually damaging) without supplying new terminology which is actually an improvement. So it falls upon me to supply a better alternative.

The use of the term "cognitive" in replacement of "neurology" in the context of neurodiversity makes a lot of sense, in my opinion. It does not preclude psychology or neurology, it simply signifies that a difference in thought exists.

"Cognidiverse" makes plenty of sense to me. I like it. It's a term I'd use.

But then we get to replacing "neurotypical". Here, I run into problems. "Cognitypical" is, if anything, even worse than neurotypical - now it doesn't prescribe neurological typicality but typicality on the basis of thought itself. The problems with this should be obvious.

There is, it seems, no rigorous way to define the sphere outside of cognidiversity. There is no simple handle which defines the "ordered" human mind. Maybe this is why "NT" relies on the problematic notion of "typicality".

Edit: The appropriative nature language of my last suggestions was pointed out, and I agree with that.

Cognidivergent (as in "neurodivergent", brought up in the discussion) and cognormative (that... still relies on a "norm", but... argh!), perhaps?

*1 Isn't this a lovely term. It's too much trouble to point to the actual person/s supporting a given stance, especially since there's a chance the reader might look up and thusly agree with them, so I'll give that stance an erroneous association with faceless, nameless "radicals". Right up there with "(supposedly authoritative but unnamed) experts say X" in journalistic brilliance.

*2 My invocation of Wikipedia (which is a less than optimal source on matters relevant to activism) for definitions demonstrates my difficulty in finding definitions within the community. I am interested in any clarification of terminology representative of the (current) neurodiversity movement itself.

*3 I got this one hurled at me pretty constantly for most of the first eighteen years of my life, so yes, I do get to reclaim it.


  1. A lot to respond to here, so it may take several comments. :)

    Firstly, i don't necessarily think "typical" is a positive or valorising word, if that's what you mean by "default" (actually, i don't think "default" is a particularly positive word/concept either...) - i don't feel at all insulted by being described as "atypical", and in fact in general usage i'm far more likely to prefix "typical" to something negative (or at best neutral) than to something positive: "a typical cliched Hollywood movie", or "a typical shitty patriarchal attitude to sexuality", for example. If i described a blog as "a typical feminist blog", you'd probably expect me to be saying something critical about both that blog and "typical" feminist blogs in general, rather than praising it.

    Secondly, i don't think "neurodiverse" is necessarily autism-specific, and i even more strongly don't think "neurotypical" is (or at least should be regarded as) synonymous with "non-autistic". Yes, i've seen lazy usage of it in such a way (for example, on one autism forum, i once saw someone refer to "NTs with learning difficulties", which to me is an obvious oxymoron), but i think that's a tendency that needs to be guarded against, but which is recognised as wrong by most neurodiversity activists.

    Thirdly, although i sometimes lapse into this one, "neurodiverse" as an adjective really doesn't make much sense in describing an individual; logically, it only makes sense as a descriptor for a group which contains individuals of diverse neurology. What term is better used to describe non-neurotypical individuals (assuming that simply "non-neurotypical" won't really do because a positive rather than purely negative term is desirable) is a matter of debate: a lot of people prefer "neurodivergent", while others like "neuroatypical" (although i don't like that one because it's too close in spelling to "neurotypical" and therefore could easily lead to confusion and typos making sentences mean the exact opposite of what they were intended to). I'm a bit on the fence myself on that, but i think "neurodivergent" works reasonably well.

    (cut because of apparently exceeding maximum Blogger comment length...)

  2. Fourthly, the extent of coverage of "neurodiversity"... is debatable, but seems to be loosely agreed on, with some border skirmishes. ;) It's fairly unambiguous that autism and related diagnoses, AD(H)D, dyspraxia, dyslexia and the other "dys-" conditions, and more generalised "learning difficulty/disability" come within the neurodiversity umbrella. Inclusion of "mental illness"/"mental distress" conditions is controversial: some people feel very strongly that they are very separate from autism/LDs/etc, and that there should be a sharp separation between the spheres of the "neurological" and the "psychological" (often partly motivated by the desire to distance from and contrast to "psychological" theories of autism like Bettelheim's "refrigerator mother" shit). I for one think that "endogenous" "mental illnesses" (ie those where the cause appears to be biochemical rather than social/situational) can and should be included within neurodiversity, whereas those (such as reactive depression or PTSD) that are clearly social/situational in origin probably, but not definitely, ought not to be - but with the caveat that it can be very difficult to distinguish them from each other, because the boundary between the neurological and the psychological is... not a clear one (it's very hard for me to tell whether many things in myself are strictly speaking "autistic things" or more learnt/reactive in nature), and that i think it's much better to err on the side of inclusion than that of exclusion when it comes to a concept that's explicitly defined by diversity and non-homogeneity.

    Physical impairments that are technically "neurological" in origin are an interesting case: personally, i haven't heard of anyone with, say, cerebral palsy or a spinal cord injury wanting to call themselves "neurodiverse" (unless they also had a cognitive impairment/difference), even though of course their conditions are neurological in nature. I think that may have to do with recognition of physical impairment/disability being (mostly) historically prior to that of "neurodiversity" in its commonly-understood sense. I'll have to think a bit more about that...

    Fifthly, i definitely think we shouldn't appropriate either "homo/hetero" or "cis/trans" as prefixes. Too much potential for confusion, accusations of "hijacking", and other political fallout, which i think would outweigh any potential gains in accuracy... or at least, that's the way it intuitively feels to me, though the boundary between analogy and appropriation is for me a very fuzzy and problematic one...

    Maybe more later. Definitely very interesting debate - mind if i point a few other people to it?

  3. I don't mind at all if you point other people here - I'd be delighted for the exposure, really!

    W/rt to the value of "typicality"
    While I certainly don't think that typicality is positive, I don't think that neutral (or, generally, negative) really changes the core problem with the term: being a "typical" person implies "normality" and nothing else. That, I think, reinforces defaults.

    Now, the fact that typicality has a connotation of negativity is also problematic, I think - I don't want to go around saying that we need to protect the poor wittle NTs, but at the same time, I do think it's important to preserve value neutrality in our identifiers.

    W/rt neurodiverisity as an identifier
    You're right, it's clunky that way - I think so, too. But that's one reason for a better term, no?

    "Neuroatypical" and "neurodivergent" might make better identifiers, but they don't address the key problems of the terminology (default referencing, appeal to neurology), to me. I wouldn't use them, though I wouldn't yell at anyone who did.

    W/rt "neurodiverse" coverage
    That reinforces all of the problems I have as far as identifying with the neurodiverse movement, honestly.

    I don't need a stamp saying it's okay to be different because my brain isn't wired the same way. I want a movement that embraces difference because it should, not because brain layout/chemistry forces it to. All of that sounds like a slap in the face to anyone without a confirmed neurological basis for their differences.

    And one point I haven't made yet (because it's a little stretching the scope here) is that the brain is, well, a physical thing. There's nothing acausal about it. The psychological has a neurological basis, regardless. I don't think it's much of a stretch to say that neurology/psychology is a false dichotomy. Of course, that means that in a perfect world, having a "psychological" disorder and identifying within the "neurodiverse" community would cause no major cognitive dissonance. But we don't live in a perfect world - we live in a world where neurology is used as a wedge against those with whose conditions are labeled "psychological."

    W/rt physical neurological problems
    I'm not trying to make the point that those people are being kept out (I don't know of anyone like that trying to identify with neurodiversity, either). The point I am trying to make in the post is that the way the neurodiverse community co-opts "neurology", which applies just as well (better, at the moment, given that neurological evidence for autism / etc. is still in its infancy) to those issues as it does to the neurodiverse movement.

    W/rt appropriative language
    You're right. I'm still stumped at making the terms better without appealing to defaults.

  4. "...that neutral..."
    that should be "that being neutral"

  5. I'm pretty tired now, but will try to respond to some of that now.

    I absolutely agree that psychology/neurology, mind/body, mental/physical, etc are false dichotomies - but i don't think that means that there can be no valid distinctions made between types of impairments. Perhaps a better way to phrase the distinction i was trying to make there is one between impairment and (internalised) oppression. The way i distinguish between the "neurological" and "psychological" things in me is that the first are inherent parts of me, neither positive nor negative in themselves, but requiring acceptance both by me and by others, whereas the second are patterns of thoughts and feelings that i have because of a society that does not accept me and because of bad things that have happened between me and particular people - things like me finding it impossible to believe that i could be accepted as someone's partner, for example - which i don't think are either inherent to me or things that should just be accepted (by me at least). These latter i consider to be internalised oppression, and i don't think internalised oppression is or should be a valid part of diversity (since in a world that truly valued diversity it wouldn't happen). So, yeah, i guess maybe i should have said "sociological" or something instead of "psychological" - i only realised after your reply that my definition of "psychological" (especially in opposition to "neurological") probably isn't a universal one.

    Also, i absolutely passionately believe that neurodiversity, or whatever it's better to call it, should be self-defining and not require an "official stamp" of any sort, for reasons that i think are well covered here (even though that article's only specifically talking about autism, i think it all applies to all "neurodiverse" conditions).

    I see where you're coming from with the root "neuro-" arguably being problematic because it seems to be conflating "neurological" with "cognitive" and ignoring all the other aspects of the nervous system. I don't know if there's a better root word to use, though.

    "I want a movement that embraces difference because it should, not because brain layout/chemistry forces it to. "

    Absolutely, that's 100% what i want too. I think that's something *much* wider than just the things covered by "neurodiversity", though. What i'd love more than anything is for a coherent, all-embracing "pro-diversity" movement-of-movements to exist - containing, without diluting or appropriating, impairment/disability, gender, race, sexual orientation, and everything else (hell, that's the reason for my blog title!)... but i don't know if that's ever likely to happen. (Though of course that doesn't stop any of us working towards it...)

    I hope some of that made some sense. Bit low on stringing-coherent-sentence-together ability tonight...

  6. "I hope some of that made some sense. Bit low on stringing-coherent-sentence-together ability tonight..."

    I hear you on that! I think your post makes sense and you bring up a lot of points I want to respond to, but the rational part of my brain wants to relax right now.

  7. I've been using "mentally diverse" occasionally to signify my solidarity with a larger group (as someone whom psychiatry labels as bipolar (which is definitely more than moods for me, it does affect what I perceive and how), the traits of which I just identify as part of who I am, rather than my PTSD which I definitely see as relating to trauma, obviously), without appropriating language from people on the autistic spectrum. It still manifests a neurological/psychological split, and I feel like I'm constantly having to explain it to people (which I generally put as "I'm not mentally ill, just different from the presumed norm...issues and discrimination that arise from that are the fault of society"), plus I feel like if it were put into wider usage, it would still contribute to that divide.

    I don't really have anything to contribute on what term should be used, other than being interested in seeing what people come up with as unifying terms for the overall experience.

  8. shiva and anarchefemme - both your posts make good points about "where to draw the line", as it were.

    Not with the psychological, but, I think, with what is personally recognized as maladaptive. I also would personally not include the depression and self hatred I've dealt with under any "[x]diverse" umbrella, not because I think those things impact my own agency (my right to make decisions for myself), but because I don't find them to be aspects of my identity which warrant celebration/acceptance. That's where the line is, for me. And the thing is, cognitive maladaptivity be psychological or neurological, "acquired" or "inborn", just as can be positive or neutral cognitive differences.

    A couple things RE:anarchafemme; no one gets to tell you how to identify, obviously, but I don't think adopting "neurodiverse" from your perspective would be appropriative of autistic language. One part of that is the language itself, as I've pointed out, isn't necessarily autism centric. The other part of that some neurodiversity advocates have been trying to incorporate (I'm not sure to what degree of success) bipolar into one of their umbrella-covered identities.


    "I see where you're coming from with the root "neuro-" arguably being problematic because it seems to be conflating "neurological" with "cognitive" and ignoring all the other aspects of the nervous system. I don't know if there's a better root word to use, though."

    Well, like I say, this is one reason I suggest "cognitive" (cog-, cogni-), which is conceptually agnostic to neurology vs. psychology and also provides a better method to explain the lack of coverage of "physical" conditions.

    Absolutely, that's 100% what i want too. I think that's something *much* wider than just the things covered by "neurodiversity", though. What i'd love more than anything is for a coherent, all-embracing "pro-diversity" movement-of-movements to exist - containing, without diluting or appropriating, impairment/disability, gender, race, sexual orientation, and everything else (hell, that's the reason for my blog title!)... but i don't know if that's ever likely to happen. (Though of course that doesn't stop any of us working towards it...)"

    That sounds like something that's been on my mind. I've been trying to come up with a term for that - there is the platform of "natural rights", which a.) provides the basis of much of the discourse going on in the general activism community anyway and b.) doesn't appeal to "human" in the terminology - nothing wrong with humans, but they are far from the only thing in the possibility space which describes "sentient being" or "people".

    That's far beyond the scope of what I'm trying to get at here, though. For the purpose of this post, I just want to challenge the (whether actively passively supported) notion that cognitive difference should only be embraced when it can be readily ascribed to a neurological cause.

  9. "...maladaptivity be..."
    "...maladaptivity can be..."

    "...whether actively passively..."
    "...whether actively or passively..."

  10. Personally, I've never used "neurodiverse" to refer to just autism. Actually, I don't really think neurodiversity in its purest form excludes neurotypicals at all. For example, when you discuss cultural diversity it's not "Our culture is normal and theirs is diverse" or "Our culture is diverse and theirs is normal". Cultural diversity refers to the full spectrum of cultural possibilities. Neurodiversity should do the same.

    Humanity is neurologically diverse. Some sub-types within that spectrum of diversity are currently mistreated because of their differences from other sub-types; therefore, people within those sub-types have a greater stake in raising awareness and gaining support for the recognition of human neurological diversity. Most of the people who are doing this are probably *not* autistic; there are a lot of campaigns to raise awareness about neurological diversity, they just don't use those words. Most of the people using this language (i.e. neurodiversity and neurodiverse) are autistic, because it was through and/or because the autistic community that the word(s) were coined and came into (relatively) common use.

    I am the mother of three children with autism. I am the wife of a man with bi-polar disorder. I am diagnosed with depression and OCD, but I also have traits that are shared by aspies and auties. None of us are neurotypical. My step-son is (most likely) neurotypical, but he is also part of the human neurological diversity.

    Regarding the distinction you made between neurology and neuropathy--I'm not sure the distinction is significant.
    Consider the definition of neurology:
    Then the definition of neuropathy:

    I think neuropathy is a sub-set of neurology.

  11. @Stephanie

    I like your definition of neurodiversity. I still want to distance myself from the term for the reasons I've listed, but I find that a much usage of it than what I've seen so far.

    Also, about neuropathy being just a sub-set of neurology - I agree with that entirely. That's my point, actually. The neurodiverse community seems to have nothing to say about neurological variation which results in physiological differences, only cognitive ones, which seems incongruent with the use of the "neuro-" prefix.

  12. "...much usage..."
    "...much better usage..."


Note that comments are moderated. I hope this is a completely unnecessary measure, but hate speech will not be tolerated (without a scathing retort, anyway).