Neurotypical vs Neurodiverse Brain

Terminology can get confusing when you’re talking about the brain. In the Autism Spectrum Disorders world, along with many other related communities, there is often discussion about neurotypical vs neurodiverse. What do these terms mean?

Neurotypical – A typical person who is free of any diagnosis involving the brain. The “ruler” against which all other behavior is measured.

Neurodiverse – everyone else.

OK, this seems a little extreme. But that’s really the way it seems to work out.

Let’s look at this pairing in a few of the areas where it tends to be brought up.

Neurotypical Language Usage

If you have kids of your own or have been around parents, you’ll realize that the world of children has become exceedingly regimentalized. There are charts and grids for everything. A child should learn to babble and even say a few words by around one year old. A child should be able to connect together two-word phrases (like “eat carrot”) by two years old. And so on. There are entire books for each year of development saying exactly what their brain should be handling at that point.

Neurotypical Sensory Management

There are situations that children are simply expected to tolerate. Going to zoos on hot days with large crowds and lots of smelly animals jumping around and doing things. Going to amusement parks with screaming and jumping and jostling. If a child can’t manage that, something must be “off” about them.

As you might guess, I have problems with the entire initial mindset. It seems to state there is an “ideal” state of the brain that is expected and that anybody who doesn’t fall into those tight categories is some sort of an aberration.

But if you take ANY two kids, they are going to diverge with each other. One could be the quiet one. The other could be the loud one. One could adore roller coasters and the other could prefer the lazy lagoon. Sure, you could wrangle together a group of ten boys who all love football. You could wrangle together ten girls who all love chess. It doesn’t mean one group is more “typical” than the other.

I think a lot of it is about society. If you look at what is expected from traditional Kyoto children, compared with traditional Chicago children, compared with traditional Inuit children, it could be very different. Maybe in one place rough-and-tumble is the norm and in other places quiet-and-reserved is the norm.

I do understand the value of knowing what works well and less well for a given child. If the entire school is planning a trip to a zoo, and for a child that is going to be incredibly stressful, then there are ways to help that child minimize the stress. And maybe those options would help another ten children, too, who also feel stress in a less extreme but still visible way.

I do also think that knowing where one falls in a group on an issue can be helpful for planning purposes. If I realize that most people like bar music played at 100db and that’s just too loud for me, but I want to go with my friends to the bar, I can know to get earplugs.

But even there, I bet I can find plenty of “neurotypical” people who wouldn’t enjoy being in a loud bar. So even though it might fall into the “neurotypical” sensory category, it doesn’t mean it applies to everyone who is non-autistic.

Maybe I’m just against categories in general as being too confining. I understand the usefulness of the words in exploratory conversation, but when it comes down to actually putting people into boxes, I’m less keen on it.

I also have to say, I don’t like words that seem to be used in a derogatory fashion. It seems some who are on the autism spectrum like jabbing at “neurotypical” people for not being able to understand concepts or being too boring. I don’t think there’s any need for that. We are each unique in our own way, and we each have great talents and gifts to offer the world. We can be proud of who we are without having to squash someone down in the process. Each of us is on our own journey.

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