A Dangerous Word: “Neurotypical”

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Last Sunday, I came across a Tweet telling “neurotypical” people to screw off. After some Twitter-based research, I realized that the term has become a derogatory referent. As the name implies, “neurotypical” means people without known mental health disorders—the word appears to include both chronic and acute disorders, but with a bias towards chronic disorders. Despite the seemingly benign definition, the term creates a negative classifier—it defines a group by what it is not. Classing people via dissimilarity necessarily creates jaundice. Using “neurotypical” only acts to distance people, blunt relationships, and abate education.

Important Note About the Association of “Neurotypical”

Since most uses of “neurotypical” on Twitter come from individuals with autism, many of the Tweets in this article will refer to autism. However, I do not mean to imply that the autism community endorses or condones the use of “neurotypical.” Rather, a vocal and apparently angry minority of individuals utilize this term aggressively. This group is not limited to those with autism, I first encountered the term “neurotypical” via an OCD Twitter account. Nor do they reflect mental health communities in general. Don’t let the rotten apples spoil the barrel here by generalizing to entire communities. This article aims to address the usage of “neurotypical” as a whole, and not to examine or critique any particular community.

Let’s start with some of the most concerning examples I found to clearly demonstrate the dangers of using “neurotypical” as a classifier:

Anger and aggression does not help anyone. Lashing out at entire social groups inflicts smarting wounds that drive people apart. Education and love, not inflammation and hate, will help people without mental disorders understand and empathize with the lives of those with them.

While micromollusc’s combative language exemplifies the potential malice of exclusionary referents, I am more concerned about luvsskat’s attitude. They claim that “neurotypicals” should not medically assist people with ADHD, OCD, bipolar, etc. This mentality doesn’t incidentally separate communities, but overtly and intentionally seeks to drive people apart. Virtually everyone entering medical professions do so to care for others, and sweepingly assuming that “neurotypical” psychologists only see patients as a pet project destroys trust. I find mental disorders fascinating from a neurophysiological and evolutionary point of view—does my intrigue forbid me from helping others? Personally, I want my psychologist and psychiatrist to express interest in their patients: a healthy dose of captivation will give them a sympathetic investment in the well-being of their patients and a drive to continually learn and improve their methods. Having a therapist and psychiatrist with the same disorder as yourself does create a powerful connection and understanding between the patient and their specialist. However, doctors without one’s disorder can have unique and useful insights and express great sympathy for their patients. Everyone has value, let us not forget that simple truth.

Here we see examples of distancing and assumptions sans malice. James made an insultingly uneducated comment about autism, and Maddox definitely feels offended. However, in their defense of the emotional diversity of people with autism, they reduce the emotional experiences of said “neurotypicals” into a singularity. Perhaps my previous sentence simply reflects my own interpretation of Maddox’s tone and isn’t shared by others. Still, the use of “we just don’t express it the same as you neurotypicals” in place of “we just don’t express it the same as others” comes across as an ad hominem. Individuals with OCD, autism, ADHD, schizophrenia, and so on may express emotions differently from the general public as well as each other. Maddox’s employment of “neurotypical” calls out a specific group rather than explaining a unique quality of people with autism.

Though Tef may not harbor ill-will toward anyone, labeling negative individuals in the context of a larger group draws connections between the two. Whether intentional or not, stating that not everyone in Group X is also of Group Y necessarily relates the two. In this case, the groups are a very diverse range of people and people wishing to inflict harm. Tef could rephrase the Tweet as follows: “to those set out to punish others, i don’t need fixing, you’re the one with an attitude problem.” This wording still targets the group of interest—those seeking to punish others—without unnecessarily dragging other people into a negative light. I wrote the alert at the beginning of this article precisely because I fear creating an inappropriate connection between those with autism and the phrase “neurotypical.” Unintended harm still cuts deep and can shutter people without the harming actor knowing what they’ve done.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can break your soul.

Even benevolence can create negative labeling through careless use of words. Danielle’s Tweet contains no animus and provides a loving message. However, the use of “neurotypical” here is still inappropriate. “Non-neurotypical” children with bipolar, PTSD, and more do not innately comprehend autism: they still require education about the autism spectrum (as an aside, I learned a lot from the linked article, give it a read). Targeting the article’s title at “neurotypical” assumes that “neurotypicals” require special education which feels exclusive. This last point may seem weak, but the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis posits that the very structure of a language influences how people speak. The use of negative classifiers creates a cognitive rejection of a category and everyone not belonging to that category. As such, word choice matters when discussing groups of people.

Classification allows groups to identify themselves and help us process information, but we must draw and word our separations carefully. It is impossible to discuss a group without recognizing that categories’ boundaries and understanding that there will be people who “don’t belong” to that group. However, we should refer to those outside of a group holistically and in a tonally appropriate manner. Numerous times in this blog, I’ve used the term “people without OCD” when discussing the neurophysiology and experiences particular to OCD. However, “people without OCD” refers to all people without OCD, whereas “neurotypical” refers only to those lacking a known psychological disorder. As a final note, the term “neurotypical” is an imposed label. Self-defined communities such as OCD, Catholic, or black communities organize themselves around something they are. People don’t typically form communities around what they are not, i.e., individuals without mental disorders don’t form “neurotypical communities.” Forcibly labeling others never benefited anyone as it folds their diverse histories into a single name liable to attack. Language wields immense power, and using it to include and respect everyone can draw the human experience together. Let us love and respect everyone we know and everyone we don’t.

Have a great day and always practice self-compassion!

A Fantastic Friend of Mine

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