HOW THE LABEL NEUROTYPICAL PROMOTES ABLEISM

Dear Reader,

With previously published works like “Marks Unraveled” and “States of Being,” it’s clear that at ENDPAIN, we’re inspired by mental diversity. That’s why we asked Alix Generous, TED speaker, neuroscientist, and mental health advocate, to write a piece for us about neuro-diversity, a topic she is not only passionate about, but is also a world-renowned speaker on the subject.

For her story, Alix describes how labels like “neurotypical” (a person who is not on the autism spectrum and described as “cognitively typical”) and “neuroatypical” (a person on the autism spectrum whose neurological structure doesn't fit what the medical community defines as "normal”) separates us from each other while also promoting discrimination against individuals with disabilities (“ableism”).

Alix’s message is a simple truth, reminding us that it is the act of getting to know another person through conversation, no matter how different they may seem from you on the outside, that we often discover we are more alike than we ever thought.

Written By Alix Generous
Alix Generous (born 1992) is a professional speaker, neuroscientist, author, applied behavior analyst, and observational comedian. Her TED talk “My Inner Life…” has received over 1.5 million views. Her works have been featured on NPR, Bloomberg Businessweek, TEDx, and the Sydney Opera House. Through high impact media, comedy, and creative storytelling, she advocates for scientific literacy, child welfare, and for the advancement of Mental Diversity. She grew up in Washington DC. At 17, She attended the College of Charleston where she studied Psychology, Molecular Biology, and Neuroscience.

When she’s not speaking at conferences, she lives in Los Angeles where she works on writing and is a registered behavior analyst for children with Autism.

http://www.alixgenerous.com/
How the label Neurotypical promotes Ableism

We hear it and read about it on social media: long, passionate rants on political views and social justice issues. Sharing ideas like these help raise awareness for a myriad of problems in the world and for that, I am grateful. However, there is one area of “ableism” activism that I never felt right about: categorizing individuals as “neuroatypical” or “neurotypical,” a stereotype more damaging than it is good.

While in school, I was convinced that everyone was more together, more beautiful, and more successful than me. These were the people who did well in their classes and exhibited social graces that I only wished I could mimic. Their hair was perfectly styled, their face: clear, their outfits matching. Some part of me would even feel resentful believing I would never be able to match wits and lifestyles with these kinds of beings. Their life is seemingly perfect, right?

WHILE IN SCHOOL, I WAS CONVINCED THAT EVERYONE WAS MORE TOGETHER, MORE BEAUTIFUL, AND MORE SUCCESSFUL THAN ME.

I challenged myself to see if my assumptions were correct. And when I took the time to get to know them, I realized something interesting: everyone has problems and struggles with some sort of adversity. Some are just better at keeping it to themselves than others.

Existing on planet earth means you're going to meet many kinds of people. We don't and won't always have the opportunity to understand everyone's struggle. And, although it appears convenient to describe anyone who seems normal as neurotypical, and anyone different as neuroatypical, this is wrong because it creates an “us” vs “them” mentality.

***

A few years ago, I was at a BBQ when I met a well-respected and successful man in his 60’s. I've always had this gift where people open up when I start a conversation, and this man, who wasn’t the type to discuss mental health issues, learned about what I did and described to me how his spouse was violent and he didn't know what to do about it. His friends were shocked. They had no idea that this was going on and what was even more shocking was that it was me—someone he just met –who he shared this with.

It was conversation that opened the door. This man, as well as every beautiful person I have strived to get to know, has struggled with something so private they dare not show it in their habits and lifestyle. Making space for others to express themselves without judgement is one of the best gifts we can give.

ALTHOUGH IT APPEARS CONVENIENT TO DESCRIBE ANYONE WHO SEEMS NORMAL AS NEUROTYPICAL, AND ANYONE DIFFERENT AS NEUROATYPICAL, THIS IS WRONG BECAUSE IT CREATES AN “US” VS “THEM” MENTALITY

So, who am I to call them neurotypical? Why would I call myself neuroatypical when the word itself isolates me from others? I am no different than anyone else when it comes to what I want in life: to feel connected, loved, and accepted. These concepts connect all of us, disabled or not, as a species. 

***

I didn’t care much for the first person I met at college (and she didn’t care for me, either). She thought I was weird, and I thought she was disingenuous. However, a year or so later, after reconnecting through mutual friends, we discovered how deeply we connected and that we could laugh together. All of these judgments disappeared as we discovered our assumptions were wrong. As I grew closer to her, I learned about her family and how her sister had bipolar and was a victim of sexual abuse. As a result, my friend felt that she was deprived of a sister growing up because her sister was taken by grief and defiance, and used drugs as a coping mechanism for her abuse. This beautiful platinum blonde friend of mine hid a whole life behind her, and I would never have been able to connect with her if I stuck with my snap judgements.

WE NEED TO PUSH AWAY FROM THIS IDEA THAT THERE ARE TWO KINDS OF PEOPLE: NEUROTYPICAL AND NEUROATYPICAL, BECAUSE IT ISOLATES US FROM KNOWING EACH OTHER.

I won't lie—I did judge her. Looking and talking to her, you would never guess that this was a girl I pinned as neurotypical. I don't consider myself a bad person for doing so, because whether we care to admit it or not, we all judge. My judgements only become a problem if I am inflexible. We have to gather knowledge and adjust accordingly, otherwise judgements become wasted energy. I used to assume my observations were accurate, when in reality, they weren't. 

***

The moment we put that label of neurotypical on someone, we put up a barrier that prevents us from connecting with their world. That barrier is invisible, but it exists and it is a strong block.

I do have autism and, for as long as I can remember, I had people questioning what was wrong with me? I truly believed that I wasn't worthy of a stable life, because it was beyond my reach as a disabled and depressed child. I realize now that those feelings were a bunch of bullshit that were fed to me by the impressions and words of others. 

We need to push away from this idea that there are two kinds of people: neurotypical and neuroatypical, because it isolates us from knowing each other. Who are we to throw labels on people without knowing the full extent of pain they've experienced in their life? It does not matter who's pain  is more—what matters is that we build a world where all kinds of minds can work to end the suffering they experience. 

Don't forget to watch Alix's TED Talk, "How I Learned to Communicate my Inner Life with Asperger's".

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