Sunday, April 9, 2017

On The Term "Neurotypical"

Over the past year or so, I've come to find the word "neurotypical" very frustrating. I know it's frequently used as a catch-all in this community to refer to people who don't struggle with mental illness or developmental disabilities or aren't on the autism spectrum, but it has connotations that I just don't like in light of what we know about the human brain already. If every single human being on the planet has a unique brain that makes them who they are, shapes their personality, and essentially sets them apart from every other human being on the planet, then there's no one "typical" brain to use as a standard.

I know that in this sense, the "typical" part of "neurotypical" is supposed to mean "healthy," but as an autistic person, I'm well aware that my neurology isn't an illness in this regard. (My OCD is another story and I actively get treatment for that.) Obviously, I don't see autism as inherently "unhealthy," so therefore, why would it be "atypical?" It's clearly been here for some time now and it's evolved with us, so it's obviously got some genetic merit and is likely a natural adaptation, just like how some of us are left-handed. (For the record, my entire immediate family, myself included, is left-handed.) Therefore, if it occurs naturally in nature and has, as recent studies suggest, for hundreds of thousands of years, why would it be any less typical than other brains if it's a trait that's been here for so long and appears in so many people?

If we are to truly embrace neurodiversity as a species, we probably are going to have to come to terms that this does include every single human brain that has ever existed. There's no one set "typical" brain, just things that occur in varying frequencies. Therefore, what is the term "neurotypical" really reinforcing here? I've stopped using it for roughly a year because it dawned on me after a conversation with my friends that none of us would fall under that term and that it projected stigma against mental health issues and disabilities by essentially reducing us, once again, to "other" status. It just doesn't feel right when viewed in that light, and that's why for roughly the past year or so I've been using the term "non-autistic people" instead in places where I once would have written "neurotypical." There's no such thing as "neurotypical." There are only infinite combinations of human brains, all different and unique, some with more in common than others.

Image: the Vulcan IDIC symbol, a triangle topped with a round diamond in front of a sphere. A cutout exists around the round diamond to highlight it.
Here I find it perhaps best to defer to a work of fiction. The Vulcan term for this concept is Kol-Ut-Shan, translated as "infinite diversity in infinite combinations." In a sense, this describes the human brain fantastically - every single brain on Earth, though shaped and structured similarly, is going to be different in its own unique way, and people are shaped both by their brains and by the life experiences their brains are exposed to. Kol-Ut-Shan actually makes the argument that neurodiversity, as it's come to be called, is natural for our species and should not be suppressed or stigmatized. As usual, humanity really could learn from the Vulcan example in this regard.

I know that the phrase "normal is just a dryer setting" gets tossed around a lot, but in the case of humankind, it's true - there's no "default" human being. There's no "default" human brain. There are just brains and the people whose skulls they reside within. When we speak of embracing neurodiversity, we speak of embracing every single human brain and learning from them all, for it's only with all of our skills together that we're going to continue to advance as a species.

I mean, we're now a few days less than 46 years away from when we make First Contact with the Vulcans, so we need to have something to show for ourselves when they get here so they see we're worth their time after all, right?

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