What Does It Mean to Be Neurotypical?

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The word "neurotypical" is quite new, but it is becoming increasingly popular in schools, at autism conferences and events, and in therapists' offices. It has no absolute medical or psychological meaning. It doesn't describe a particular personality, trait, or set of abilities. The definition can be stated from both a negative and a positive perspective:

  • Neurotypical people are those individuals who do not have a diagnosis of autism or any other intellectual or developmental different. 
  • A "neurotypical" person is an individual who thinks, perceives, and behaves in ways that are considered to be "normal" by the general population. 

What It Means to Be Neurologically "Normal"

It is, of course, possible to have no diagnosed developmental or intellectual disorders, and thus be definable as neurotypical. But there are significant differences between "normal" and "not diagnosed." In addition, there is no stable, universally understood concept of "normal."

In fact, "normal" perceptions and behaviors vary radically depending on culture, gender, situation, socioeconomic level, and many other factors. In some cultures, for example, direct eye contact is expected; in others, it's considered rude. In some cultures, physical contact with relative strangers is considered normal while in others it's considered odd and off-putting.

Other behavioral differences, while not a result of a developmental or intellectual disorder, can be marginalizing. For example, LGBT individuals may find themselves on the outside of many social groups without having any neurological challenges to cope with. The same is true of members of certain religious groups.

What It Means to Be Neurodiverse

Modern researchers have developed complex charts and libraries of books describing "normal" human development. Expectations for behavior, learning, social interaction, and physical development are all built around those norms. In addition, institutions such as schools, sports leagues, places of employment, and even religious organizations are designed to accommodate people who fit into developmental norms. Generally speaking, contemporary "first world" civilizations are built for people who:

  • develop verbal, physical, social, and intellectual skills at a specific pace, in a particular order, and at a particular level
  • enjoy and function well in complex social settings with large numbers of people
  • have little or no difficulty in managing sensory "assaults" ranging from chemicals in the air to a barrage of intense light, sound, crowds, and movement
  • find it pleasant and easy to engage in team activities including sports, games, and projects
  • learn best in a fast-paced, highly verbal, competitive setting with large numbers of same-aged peers
  • perform well under pressure
  • speak, move, and behave in "expected" ways (at an expected volume, pace, distance from others, etc.)
  • have an expected set of interests and passions (usually sports, movies, popular music, food, etc.)

Those people who develop at a pace or in ways that diverge from those norms often find themselves left behind, ostracized, marginalized, or, at best, tolerated. Yet millions of people do, in fact, diverge from neurotypical norms, some radically and others just enough to find it impossible to fit in.

The Neurodiversity Movement

The neurodiversity movement is built around the idea that developmental differences such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia, and learning disabilities are not disorders to be cured but are, instead, differences to be respected. Members of the neurodiversity movement are often opposed to the idea of a cure for autism.

By 2014, the term "neurotypical" had become common enough to become the title of a PBS documentary featuring autistic individuals describing their own perceptions of themselves in relation to "normal" society: Via the worlds of 4-year-old Violet, teenager Nicholas, and middle-aged wife and mother Paula, along with provocative interviews with other autistics, the film recounts the challenges they face living among "normal" people—whom many of them call "neurotypicals."

In 2015, Steve Silberman wrote the book "NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity," which argues that autism spectrum disorders, seen by some as a recent epidemic, have actually been a part of the human condition throughout history. By discovering themselves as autistic, he argues, some adults are discovering their "neurotribes"—that is, their neurological kin. The same concept, presumably, holds true for people with various neurological differences which place them outside the mainstream. For example, some adults who discover they are diagnosable with ADD or a learning disability suddenly become aware of themselves as part of a group who have gone through similar experiences and think in similar ways.

The concept of neurodiversity is controversial. Many parents of autistic children feel that autism is, indeed, a disorder that should be prevented and cured. Quite a few autistic self-advocates share that perspective. To a large degree, differences in opinion relate directly to differences in personal experience. When autism is extremely limiting or causes significant physical or mental distress, it is usually seen as a disorder. By the same token, when autism is a source of ability and personal pride, it is generally seen as an asset.

Neurotypicals From a Neurodiverse Perspective

From the point of view of the autism community and other neurodiverse groups, neurotypicals are generally assumed to have certain positive qualities in common which people with autism generally lack. Specifically, neurotypicals are assumed to:

On the flip side, neurotypicals are sometimes looked down on by people on the autism spectrum because of their willingness to unquestioningly follow social and societal dictates. For example, neurotypicals are assumed to be more likely than people with autism to:

  • take part in small talk
  • tell white (or not-so-white) lies
  • go along to get along even when it means behaving immorally
  • hook up sexually without much regard for long-term emotional outcomes
  • bully others in order to gain social status
  • become competitive or jealous

There are very few people who actually fit the neurotypical stereotype as described above.

Many non-autistic people who would not qualify for any developmental diagnosis are shy, socially awkward, and have a hard time establishing and keeping friendships and romantic relationships. In addition, of course, there are plenty of "normal" people who avoid hookups, bullying, small talk, and other problematic social behaviors.

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