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Neurotypical: What Does it Mean? How is it Different from Autism?

neurotypical definition

You’ve probably heard the term “neurotypical” in the context of autism.

Neurotypical is defined as not having characteristics of autism or any atypical thought patterns. “Neuro” refers to the brain, while “typical” refers to what the medical community has determined is most prevalent in society.

Obviously, that definition fails to explain what neurotypical actually is, as we have no baseline of what behaviors go along with it. This is because the word “neurotypical” is more so defined by what it isn’t as opposed to what it is. Notice how autism is specifically mentioned in the Merriam-Webster definition of neurotypical. It’s easier to describe neurotypical by what it is than what it isn’t.

The Origins of the Word “Neurotypical”

Understandably, many people assume that the word “neurotypical” was started by, well, neurotypical people. Instead, the word originated from the need of the autism community to distinguish themselves as a prominent and important facet of society. The word “neurotypical” was created to be a counterpoint to its opposite, “neurodiverse,” as we’ll chat about next.

Rumor has it that the word “neurotypical” originated in 1993 following a conference where Jim Sinclair gave a presentation called “Don’t Mourn Us,” which outlines the fact that an autism diagnosis is not a tragedy. While those with autism may not fall within the category of having “typical thought patterns,” that’s ok. 

Atypical thought patterns can be celebrated, which we’ll discuss next with the emergence of the term “neurodiverse.”

The Origins of the Word “Neurodiverse”

While the word “neurodiverse” was born in 1993 at the same time as “neurotypical,” it didn’t appear in print until 1998 when Harvey Blume used it as a term to celebrate the geek community. Celebration is an appropriate term here, as neurodiversity really aims to be a way to highlight the benefits of being “atypical.”

Neurodiversity as a Celebration

Given that the word “neurodiverse” originated within the autism community, it is meant to celebrate the wonderful capabilities of those who don’t fall within the typical category. Instead of saying that “typical” is the only way to be, neurodiversity encourages the idea that many different types of neurological functioning are beneficial to the world.   

The Controversy Around Neurodiversity

Of course, neurodiversity comes with its fair share of controversy. While I aim to keep The Sensory Toolbox warm and fuzzy and I don’t want to dive into it too much, many believe that conditions such as autism should remain within the medical model and not be recategorized under a term such as neurodiversity.

This is simply one controversial idea of many, but it all stems from the fact that it’s really challenging to talk about how humans function. Whenever we step into the waters of typical, atypical, diverse, and more, we are bound to discover complications we weren’t expecting.

Does “Neurotypical” and “Neurodiverse” Only Apply to Autism?

No, the words “neurotypical” and “neurodiverse” can apply to anyone and everyone. While they originated within the autism community and are most commonly associated with it, they apply to all types of thought patterns. In general, these terms aim to celebrate how all of our brains function, typical or otherwise.

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Diana Fitts is a certified and licensed Occupational Therapist who specializes in sensory processing disorders and autism. Check out my About page to read my story and get a free therapy journal page to record your kiddo’s sessions!