Friday, April 10, 2009

Who is neurotypical? (by Suzie)

           After a recent and heated discussion on this blog, I sought more information on the term “neurotypical,” which began in the autism community for people perceived “as normal in their ability to process linguistic information and social cues.”
           In the previous discussion, some readers seemed to be using NT for anyone who hasn't been diagnosed with a mental disorder or illness. A couple of comments on this thread at Wrong Planet do the same.    
          When many people hear “mental illness,” they think of a debilitating disorder that lasts a long time, as opposed to being “physically ill,” which might last only a few hours. But certain mental illnesses can come and go and come again, or go away forever.
          When I was an undergraduate 30 years ago, I had agoraphobia. It got so bad that I felt sick stepping outside my apartment. My thinking was different from when I did public speaking in high school, and it is different now.
          I also suffer from anxiety and depression, which ebb and flow in my life. When I’m feeling generalized anxiety or a deep depression, my thinking is different. On the other hand, I may feel little anxiety or sadness in regard to something that would bother most people. For example, lots of people feel “scanziety” before scans to see if their cancer has returned. Imaging studies now feel routine to me. As a volunteer, I’ve come to know many people who have died. I appreciate having known them, and I usually don’t feel as sad about their death as many others do.
         Was I neurotypical before I had agoraphobia, non-neurotypical while experiencing it, and then neurotypical again after I recovered? Have I been non-neurotypical since the onset of anxiety and depression, or am I only non-neurotypical when I’m experiencing those moods? Can I still be called neurotypical when my feelings and thoughts differ from the norm?
            If we limit the definition of non-neurotypical to people with neurological disorders, such as autism, what about people who have other such disorders, such as cerebral palsy and multiple sclerosis, who may think no differently from people without those disorders? My head hurts (and that can be a symptom of a neurological disorder).
            The most common usage of “neurotypical” confines it to people who aren’t on the autism spectrum. A friend suggests the definition might be limited to people believed to be wired differently from birth whose brain functioning can’t be changed by drugs. I would be OK with that definition if the word “neurotypical” didn’t imply that I’m typical in how my brain processes information. The label seems to deny that people like me do process cues differently at times. (Why did she say such-and-such? She must not like me! I’m so unlikable! No one will ever like me! My life is worthless!)
            This is a dilemma for me. I don’t feel like I’m neurotypical but I don’t consider myself non-neurotypical all of the time any more than I consider myself mentally ill all of the time.