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What is Neurotypical?

How many books on Asperger’s Syndrome or Autism have you read that begin with Chapter 1: What is Asperger’s Syndrome or Chapter 1: What is Autism? If you or someone you love is on the spectrum, then the answer is probably “a lot.”

The authors’ desire to start at the beginning is commendable but honestly I skip over these introductory chapters. I have the DSM diagnostic criteria memorized and I’m on intimate terms with the signs and symptoms of Asperger’s Syndrome.

Perhaps a more useful opening chapter for aspies would be: What is Neurotypical?

Neurotypical is a term that’s thrown around in the autism community like everyone instinctively knows what it means. If this is a new word for you (like it was for me not so long ago), in the ASD community, neurotypical is often used to refer to people who are not on the autism spectrum. It’s a mash-up of the words “neurologically typical” and is often shortened to NT.

A more correct word for someone who is not autistic is allistic. Technically, you can be non-neurotypical (neuroatypical) even if you aren’t autistic. Having clarified that up front, I’m going to go with the popular usage here.

How Can You Tell if Someone is Neurotypical?

So who are these NTs and how can you tell if someone in your family is neurotypical?

For starters, NTs make up about 99% of the population, so they’re everywhere. It’s very likely that you know neurotypicals and you probably have at least one NT in your family. While there is no widely accepted diagnostic test, NTs are fairly easy to spot once you know what to look for.

Perhaps the most obvious giveaway is an NT’s tendency to make “small talk” or to want to “chat” with you. While small talk appears to be nonfunctional, for NTs it serves a very specific purpose. It’s a good idea to humor them and participate to whatever degree you can tolerate. If you’re patient with them, many NTs will soon feel comfortable enough to move from small talk to more interesting, in-depth conversations.

Another common sign that someone is an NT? Touching. NTs enjoy all sorts of physical contact and often use touch to greet friends, family and even casual acquaintances. While it’s hard to fathom why your real estate agent or hairdresser feels the need to send you off with a hug, try not to be judgmental while fending them off. NTs are simply wired differently.

Sometimes NT behavior can be frustrating. For example, you may notice that NTs have a tendency to say something other than what they mean. If you get a new haircut and you’re not sure how it looks on you, don’t bother asking an NT. Most will tell you it looks great, even if you look like this:

"No, really, I love your new hairstyle!"
“No, really, I love your new hairstyle!”

Why? Because when a neurotypical woman asks her friend “how do you like my new haircut?” she isn’t looking for her friend’s opinion, she’s looking for validation. When her friend says, “I love it” she may mean I love your hair, but what she’s really saying is I love you and value you as a person.

So when your NT friend says “how do you like my new haircut?” and you, being your aspie self, reply, “It’s a little short in the back but I like it”, your NT friend hears I secretly hate you and think you’re ugly.

Confusing, I know.

And good luck getting an opinion out of an NT when you really need one. It may help to preface your question by explicitly stating that you’re seeking an actual, honest-to-God opinion but, even then, the NT’s dogged adherence to socially appropriate behavior may inhibit their ability to say what they’re really thinking. Try to remember that NTs were born this way and their natural sensitivity to what others are thinking and feeling often makes it hard for them to be completely honest.

Of course all NTs are different, much like all aspies are different, so these are just some general guidelines for recognizing the NTs in your life.

Offended Yet?

If you’re neurotypical, how did reading this make you feel? Offended? Stereotyped? Did you enjoy the patronizing tone? How about the sweeping generalizations?

What if it went on to talk about how some NTs are so socially adept that they get promoted into positions they don’t have the knowledge or skills for? What if it listed good careers for NTs (sales, management, counseling) and authoritatively added that you shouldn’t bother considering engineering or computer science because you’ll probably fail if you do?

Perhaps you’d like to read that your neurotype–the way you were born–will cause significant stress to your family or prevent you from having meaningful relationships? How about some unsubstantiated data on the astronomically high divorce rate among people of your neurotype or the alleged rarity of someone like you ever becoming a parent, let alone a good one?

Yes, We Can Read

My search for books about Asperger’s syndrome has left me surprised at how much there is about Asperger’s that isn’t directed at people who have Asperger’s. The majority of the books that I’ve read are addressed to parents, educators, caregivers and counselors. Which is great. There need to be resources for all of these people.

But there also need to be more good comprehensive materials that are written for aspies, not just about us. We can read. We’re eager to learn more about how our brains work. Why is it so hard to find authors who recognize that?


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