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Jun 17 2012

Blogathon: 21st Hour

Damn.

The birds outside are being total jerks right now. You have like no idea.

I also think it’s important for you to know that my favourite Marvel characters are totally Dr. Strange, She-Hulk, Mystique, Magneto and Emma Frost, while my favourite DC characters are Barbara Gordon, Commissioner Gordon, Renee Montoya, The Doom Patrol, Wonder Woman, Vandal Savage, Lex Luthor and Zatanna. And maybe Dick Grayson. He’s really warming on me lately.

Right now my brain is functioning quite strangely. Sleep dep and all. That stuff.

And as it happens, I’ve lately been questioning the concept of “neurotypical” lately.

The thing that concerns me is not that we have a term describing normativity in relation to cognitive function, or that we’ve developed a frame work of how privilege and marginalization can occur in relation to such normativities, but mainly that the term “neurotypical” seems a bit too broad, in relation to the somewhat too narrow range of things that are described as, well, NOT neurotypical.

All too often, I see the phrase “neurotypical” being used to describe anyone who doesn’t happen to have one of a relatively narrow range of diagnoses. Such as autism spectrum disorders, learning disabilities, ADD, ADHD and OCD. That seems sort of at odds with how we normally define normativities.

Generally, for these distinctions to be really useful, it has to be the normative category that has the relatively narrow definition, based on social prescriptions, while the “outsider” category is broad and inclusive enough to accept anyone who isn’t accepted and privileged by those social prescriptions. But by allowing the social structure to define who and isn’t included in the category of “non-neurotypical”, by way of the diagnosis, it becomes highly rigid and exclusive, as well as makes the non-normative category a function of the normativity itself. Or, to reference a recent post, it’s a clubhouse instead of the outside of the clubhouse.

I myself don’t have any of the diagnoses listed above, but it just seems jarring, dismissive, and very inaccurate to desribe my cognitive functioning as “neurotypical”, given that they’re very much non-normative, and I’ve been obliged for much of my life to try to cobble together little adaptations and ways of coping in order to navigate a world structured by and for people whose brains work very differently than mine. In fact, I’m inclined to think the atypical nature of my brain is exactly what makes a diagnosis unlikely.

It feels somewhat arrogant, narcissistic or self-indulgent to describe one’s non-normative cognitive traits, but it feels like that is itself a product of the normativity… a way that we’re shamed and conditioned into remaining silent about ways we diverge from the norm. People have knee-jerk negative reactions to anyone vocalizing any way that they’re cognitively different. If not seen as self-indulgent, narcissistic, etc. it’s seen as whiny, “making excuses”, or “making up self-diagnoses”, etc.

So even though I have those feelings of hesitation to actually describing such elements of myself, I’ve said A LOT of personal things tonight, and I think it’s important to work against those shames and limitations. To not treat simple embarrassment under externally defined cultural norms as a legitimate reason to remain silent on something that seems important to talk about.

I have an IQ of 149. That doesn’t mean I’m “smarter” than other people, or “more intelligent”, or anything like that, but it does indicate that my brain operates in a certain way that is different from most people. When tested as a kid, I had prodigy “genius”-ish spatial and verbal reasoning abilities, but was below average in mechanical reasoning. I’ve always been very clumsy and easily distracted. I’ve got an extremely good memory for information learned through language, either spoken or written, and as such am very gifted at remembering trivia, quotes and things like that, and never, ever had to study for a test in my entire life. Once I learned something, it was learned. I hated math class, and never much liked formulae and “rules”, but could often get great scores on tests by, as my teacher’s called it, “common sensing” my way through problems and devising my own solutions. I have TERRIBLE executive functions and impulse control, have an endorphine deficiency and pretty bad tendencies towards addiction, I can’t manage money or paperwork or anything like that, I didn’t learn to drive until I was 21, I’m awful at maintaining routines, etc. All in all, I’m pathetic at basic life-management stuff, but am nonetheless resourceful and tough enough to fairly reliably get myself out of trouble not too long after getting myself into it. I think in language, in a constant internal dialogue (not monologue) that never, ever, ever shuts up, no matter how badly I want it to. I require mild stimulants like cigarettes and nicotine not so much to focus my thoughts, as in ADD, but to make them manageable, comprehensible, my own. To be able to process them into something genuinely intelligible (or at least communicable). I had Asperberger’s-like symptoms while young, in terms of poor social skills and self-imposed isolation, but I grew out of it and eventually became a rather friendly, empathic, extroverted, and even perhaps a bit charismatic, person. I have a knack for perceiving breaks in pattern, and as a result have always been very, very good at finding four-leaf clovers. There was one summer where I found so many I started just casually giving them away to strangers.

And so on.

None of that is in any way “typical”, but nonetheless my lack of a diagnosis classifies me as “neurotypical”, and suggests that I have “neurotypical privilege”, despite the fact that I, like people who don’t fall under that classification, have struggled my whole life to be able to fit into a society that isn’t structured for people who think and process the way I do. I’ve had to learn to adapt and cope and come up with all kinds of little “tricks” and stuff. Learned to lean on my strengths and minimize my weaknesses. Learned what about myself I could and couldn’t rely on.

I’m not saying the term “neurotypical” needs to be discarded, or that there aren’t clear normativities, privileges and marginalizations operating in relation to cognition. I just think the definitions need to be tweaked such as that the NON-normative category becomes clearly the broad and inclusive one, accepting anyone who is not so privileged under present social structures, while “neurotypical” is narrowed to represent the “clubhouse” to which the people who think and process within the range our society is adapted to belong.

Knawmean?

16 comments

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  1. 1
    Miri

    Yeah, neurotypical is a little problematic. But I do understand it, looking as I am from that other side. I have either a very weak form of Asperger’s, or an extremely high-functioning form of autism. Or, to describe it another way, I’ve been able to mitigate the symptoms of my austism spectrum disorder over time to a point that they seem this way (I was terribly unusual when I was a kid). I also have a similarly high IQ as you and most of what you wrote I could have written in describing myself. The thing I see though is that while you’re way of thinking is atypical, it’s perhaps atypical in a typical way… (I doubt I’m going to be able to frame this very well) For example, while you are supposedly “neurotypical”, I am diagnosed as not, and yet we do share a whole lot of similar thought characteristics. I know two people is not really sufficient to make conclusions from, but I’m willing to imagine that if we had a sufficiently large enough sample, we’d find that these thought patterns are found in both neurotypical people and otherwise. So, perhaps, the way these sorts of things should be framed is similar to the way you’ve mentioned how gender is less a spectrum and more a collection of features, so that though someone might be typical in one way, they are not in another, or vice versa, or in both, or neither…

    I hope that made sense. I’m thinking about 7 things at once and I only sleep about 4 hours a night lately, so my communication skills aren’t at their best…

  2. 2
    Tisha Irwin

    Natalie, have you ever actually been screened for ADD? An awful lot of what you describe sounds like ADD to me. I’m neither a psychiatrist nor a psychologist but I was recently diagnosed with ADD and I’ve learned a lot about it. (And in typical ADD fashion, I hyperfocused on it for a while and then moved on to something else.)

    Even your line about the birds being jerks… being hypersensitive to sensory stimuli is one of the traits of ADD. For me smells are the biggest problem but sound is right behind.

  3. 3
    sillybit

    i’ve been lurking a long time (I adore your blog) but this resonates a lot with me. I spent a long time as a teen and young adult searching for a diagnosis (not formally) for why I’m just different than other people–and this is just my perception of me, obviously–but there’s nothing “wrong” with me. I feel like I must be so different from the people and the world around me, like I just don’t get them at all, but I function in society just fine–with quirks. so i don’t really have any disorders, I’m just weird. I just wanted so much to find a reason for why i’m so weird. or why i feel so weird. this is really a random sentence. i really really love your writing.

  4. 4
    Setrain

    As an autistic person with a great variety of weird friends, I’ve been sort of trying to extend the definition of neurotatypically more broadly for a while. I don’t even tend to ever refer to individuals as neurotypical, because how can I know? I try to just use it as a description of the norm. Still I feel like there needs to be a word for non-autistic too, (better than non-autistic). It’s annoying that it’s hard to make up words and make them stick, so one is stuck using problematic terminology trying to be understood. But basically, I agree with your overall point.

  5. 5
    Robert B.

    Needing a diagnosis to count yourself as neuroatypical strikes me as analogous to needing a diagnosis to count yourself as trans. It’s just more gatekeeping bullshit. The diagnosis is how the doctor finds out you’re different, not how you find out.

  6. 6
    Bia

    “I think in language, in a constant internal dialogue (not monologue) that never, ever, ever shuts up, no matter how badly I want it to. I require mild stimulants like cigarettes and nicotine not so much to focus my thoughts, as in ADD, but to make them manageable, comprehensible, my own. To be able to process them into something genuinely intelligible (or at least communicable).”

    This. So much this. See, you may have shared more tonight than you may have wanted but I for one appreciate this greatly because in this one post I can see a mind that works like mine. I hit a low about a year ago that I’m only now pulling myself out of and to be honest your blog has been rather helpful in reminding me that I’m not all that strange and hopeless.

    And now I have built to spill stuck in my head…

  7. 7
    Allan

    I think it should be noted that neurodiversity is a fairly new and changing idea; I’m not aware of any absolutely set-in-stone rules regarding who’s in. There’s no reason it can’t include other groups – if they’re interested in being included (given the nature of stigma around mental “disorders”, there’s plenty of people that want nothing to do with any such things).

  8. 8
    Queue

    I’ve heard a good deal of anecdotal evidence that trans women are disproportionately intelligent compared to the rest of the population. Maybe just a self-selection effect, but still pretty interesting.

    1. 8.1
      Natalie Reed

      Not just self-selection, but social pressures too, distribution of privilege. Transition is difficult, and often only available to people who are relatively okay along certain axes of social power: class, education, race, etc: Who does and doesn’t successfully navigate the gatekeeping system, who is held to stricter standards by that system, who is able to “play ball” with that system, who is provided access to resources and information and stuff, who can or can’t actually AFFORD transition, etc.

  9. 9
    alt+3

    ““I think in language, in a constant internal dialogue (not monologue) that never, ever, ever shuts up, no matter how badly I want it to.”

    This is one of those things I never noticed about myself for the longest time. I don’t think in words. The first time I noticed was when my German teacher told me that to get practice I should try to think in German, and when I tried it occurred to me that I don’t even think in English. The only times I have an internal monologue is when I’m thinking of something to say (like right now).

    I’ve actually wondered if this is at least partially responsible for my problems with communicating. For instance, when speaking with people I tend to take what they say at the literal face value of the words they use and only tend to notice any metaphors or subtext when what they’re saying makes no sense (it’s embarrassing how often I have to stop listening to someone and try to remember when we started talking about ducks or flies or birds). Either that or times I’ve had people make fun of me or criticize me and I don’t notice until minutes or hours later. Of course this means most literature is completely pointless for me, it just ends up as a series of mundane events happening to completely ordinary people. I actually avoid most fiction for this reason.

  10. 10
    Grimalkin

    Hmm. As much as you are correct that “non-neurotypical” shouldn’t be a clubhouse at all, I can’t help but wonder why (at least by your list) the ‘clubhouse’ of non-neurotypical doesn’t at least include mood/personality disorders like depression and anxiety and such. I’ve been diagnosed with depression, and though I haven’t been able to seek a diagnosis (yet) I’ve got major issues with paranoia also. I’d be rather disturbed if even with non-neurotypicality being exclusive rather than for the excluded, that didn’t count.

    Oh, and Robert B. @5, thank you for pointing that out. While I was “lucky” enough (in a financial sense, not in an ‘actual good things happening’ sense) to be able to be diagnosed with depression, it’s kind of fucked up to think that I didn’t count as suffering from depression until I was diagnosed, that I don’t count as dealing with paranoia issues until I have the chance to deal with a psychologist again, and that all of the people with disorders of some sort who don’t have the ability to pursue psychological care don’t ‘really’ suffer from their disorders.

    Sadly though, I’ve seen that exact thought process play out many times. I will admit there are some tricky issues with self diagnosis; Off of the top of my head, I can think of people with a tendency towards organization claiming the OCD title, usually in the form of “Oh, haha, I’m so OCD” without realizing that the disorder is characterized by much more and far less pleasant things than just having a penchant for cleanliness. That said, petty annoyances like that are hardly a reason to declare self diagnosis invalid, considering that it’s the only diagnosis available to some.

  11. 11
    Life In Neon

    “I have an IQ of 149. That doesn’t mean I’m “smarter” than other people, or “more intelligent”, or anything like that, but it does indicate that my brain operates in a certain way that is different from most people. . . . There was one summer where I found so many I started just casually giving them away to strangers.”

    Aside from the cigarettes, and driving at 21, this is exactly how I’ve described my life. You are two more strikes away from induction into the “we’re secretly the same person” club. Currently there’s three of us’s. (In fact, I’ll be visiting one of my other selves this weekend.)

    I struggle with explaining to people how being a genius comes at a cost of being paralyzingly non-functional in a lot of the day-to-day living stuff. Being able to make the logical leaps necessary to piece together how VSEPR theory works in time to puzzle out molecule shapes on a test in a class I didn’t attend regularly, or being able to fall back on Latin roots to figure out the difference between hypertrophy and hyperplasia, does not enable one to hold a job, or prioritize bill paying properly.

    When I showed up on time to a class this past semester, my professor laughed out loud. Executive function? That was my dump stat.

  12. 12
    Jake Hamby

    I agree about “neurotypical” being problematic. Who’s to say what’s normal or typical when there are so many dimensions of mental function and so much range within each dimension?

    My attitude about my situation with ADD/ADHD is that it’s useful to have a name to describe a cluster of symptoms for purposes of getting access to the medication that works for me as well as making it easy for me to read stories of others in a similar boat to learn from what worked and didn’t work for them. Natalie, I believe you’ve said the exact same things in terms of GID and your conflicted feelings towards that concept. We can’t abolish the term(s) without hurting people who need access to medical treatments, and yet to medicalize such core aspects of ourselves as gender, mood, attention span, emotional responses, is othering as hell.

    Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to file a complaint with my employer (Google) about this bullshit homeopathic snake oil for ADHD (I won’t name the product) that I keep getting banner ads for on blog posts like this one. It doesn’t even have the usual “quack Miranda warning”, so I should be able to get the advertiser banned. I would suggest for anyone else seeing banner ads for homeopathic bullshit to complain to the ad networks as well. There’s no excuse for that. (Sigh…)

  13. 13
    Fionnabhair

    I was thinking about the definition for neurotypicality not too long ago. I was writing about mental illness, and I wanted to use the word to describe people who are not mentally ill. I wanted to use the term neurotypical for this purpose, but that doesn’t fit the currently-established definition of the word. Not being a member of the autistic community, though, I’m not entirely comfortable with appropriating the word. On the other hand, I don’t feel that “neurotypical” describes me, either.

  14. 14
    anon

    Your definition of neuroatypicality seems overly strict. Personally, anyone who’s mentally ill-has depression, anxiety, etc.- or autistic is neurodivergent. So are people who have problems with sensory processing or are sensory defensive, and of course those with learning disabilities or ADD/ADHD. Even people who have synesthesia are neuroatypical.
    You can be allistic, not have ADD or a learning disability or anxiety, and still be neurodivergent.

  15. 15
    beneficii

    For neurodiversity, one of the issues is that people on the autism spectrum have real problems that can cause problems for others and ourselves. When I was a child, I had significant language delays, would have poor social interaction and very strong fixations, and would often go into violent meltdowns whenever I felt overwhelmed. My condition was exasperating for my parents to deal with, and I went through a whole battery of tests and therapy and was placed in a special school for children with mental problems. I improved greatly as I got older, but these issues are still a challenge for me, and I also had a lot of self-esteem issues arising from it, because throughout my childhood I always wanted to be normal, and thought lowly of myself for not being normal. This also affected the way I dealt with my gender dysphoria, which I’ve had since age 5.

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