I don’t think that word means what you think it means…
Language is one of those things we often take for granted. We use it without really thinking about it. We take on new language almost through osmosis. All of a sudden we find ourselves using words we can’t really guarantee we actually understand and comprehend their actual meanings. It can cause an embarrassment, offense to others, or a situation where you are passing inaccurate information to others.
Language is not only something we take for granted but it is pregnant with meaning. A case in point is the issue of person-first language vs identity-first language. It’s an issue that generates debate and opinions which are often split between autistic people and non-autistic people. Statements are made that “it’s just an issue of semantics.” On one level this is true, but at a far more pervasive and powerful level, the difference is imbued with much meaning and value.
This essay is not about the issue of person-first language or identity-first language. I use it here simply as an example of how powerful language we use everyday can be.
Plenty of autistics know something about living life misdiagnosed and mislabelled. Personally, that label for me was centred around ableist terms like dumb, stupid, idiot and weird. As well, I was labelled a naughty, outcast and strange one. I don’t believe anyone enjoys being mislabeled. I think it can impact people deeply…I know it did for me personally.
[Tweet “neurotypical, neurodiverse, neurodivergent, allistic-What do these words mean? #penfriendproject”]
I want to turn to the words neurotypical, neurodiverse and neurodivergent. I would also like to bring into this dialogue the word allistic. Before I go further, however, I acknowledge that my thoughts have been influenced by both Cas at Un-Boxed Brain and Nick Walker from Neurocosmopolitan.
is a person born with a “typical” neurology. It does not mean a person who is not autistic.
refers to the whole diversity of neurology. It does not mean an autistic person.
refers to someone with a non-typical neurology. It does not simply mean autistic.
means a non-autistic person.
The differences may seem a bit pedantic on one hand, but those differences in meaning are quite important. I have close friends who may or may not be autistic, however, they are neurodivergent. You see one can be neurodivergent and not autistic. An example of this is someone who is allistic (not-autistic) with an ADD/ADHD or OCD diagnosis. In this case, it is wrong to refer to them as an NT, as it is not correct and excludes a significant part of their personhood.
It can be confusing to get straight as one can be allistic and neurodivergent. Yes, you can be not neurotypical and not autistic. It would be easy to think this doesn’t matter, but it does matter. I have experienced many autistic people feeling upset and angry for the incorrect labels ascribed to them in their personal histories. This has to go both ways.
I know a few neurodivergent people who are not autistic and they don’t like to be labelled as NT. And I think that is valid.
It’s also worth remembering that neurodiverse and neurodivergent are different things. Neurodiverse is a representation of the full range of neurotypes whereas neurodivergent is an identifier of a neurology that diverges from the typical.
An example is a gathering of two autistic people, one person with ADHD and two NT people. This would be a neurodiverse gathering, at which are present, three neurodivergent and two neurotypical people.
I confess I have had time to work this through myself and so don’t have to think too much about it. It pretty much comes naturally for me now to make the distinction. A complicating factor can be that some neurodivergent people will refer to themselves as neurodiverse. And this is OK as it is a self-identifier much like the autistic person that uses aspie or “person with autism” self-identifiers.
The thing that isn’t fine, in my view, is the use of NT as a disparaging label. Unfortunately, I have seen this occur in both real life and online situations. The NT moniker can and, unfortunately, is at times used as a divisive and categorising label to “other” people in a similar way many neurodivergent folks have also experienced. I don’t see how this is okay or acceptable.
I believe it is really important that these terms don’t become rallying points for any kind of neuro-elitism. The neurodiversity paradigm is all about difference and diversity and not about setting one group against another.
It’s not better to be neurotypical and neither is it better to be neurodivergent. It is just different.
It is not better to be allistic and it is not better to be autistic. It is just different.
Personally, I don’t want to be allistic or neurotypical. That’s not because it’s better or worse just because it would mean I am not who I am and that would be intolerable.
So yes, the words we use, let’s make sure they mean what we think they mean.
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