Neurotypicality is a grounding narrative of exclusion. The neurotypical is the category to which our education systems aspire. It is the category to which our ideas of the nuclear family aspire. And, it is the category on which the concept of the citizen (and by extension participation in the nation-state and the wider global economy) is based.
In the context of education, which is the one I am most knowledgeable about, the mechanisms for upholding the neurotypical standard are everywhere in force. Every classroom that penalizes students for distributed modes of attention organizes learning according to a neurotypical norm. Every classroom that sees the moving body as the distracted body is organized according to a neurotypical norm. Every classroom that teaches predominantly for one mode of perception is organizing its learning according to a norm. Every classroom that knows in advance what knowledge looks and sounds like is working to a norm.
Intelligence, understood as the performance of a certain kind of knowledge acquisition and presentation, is built on the scaffold of neurotypicality as the unspoken norm. To speak of the normative tendencies of education is not new. My concern is with what remains largely unspoken in that conversation. Having “special needs” classrooms upholds neurotypicality, for instance, as the dominant model of existence. Drugging our children because of their attention deficit is upholding a neurotypical norm. Sending our black and indigenous children to juvenile detention centers in disproportionate numbers is upholding a neurotypical norm which takes, as neurotypicality always does, whiteness as the standard.
One of the cruelest tricks our culture plays on autistic people is that it makes us strangers to ourselves. We grow up knowing we’re different, but that difference is defined for us in terms of an absence of neurotypicality, not as the presence of another equally valid way of being. We wind up internalizing a lot of hateful, damaging, and inaccurate things about ourselves, and that makes it harder to know who we really are or what we really can and cannot do. If no one ever acknowledges that we have a voice, we can forget how to use it. We might even decide not to.
And this is where the neurotypical belief in theory of mind becomes a liability. Not just a liability – a disability.
Because not only are neurotypicals just as mind-blind to autistics as autistics are to neurotypicals, this self-centered belief in theory of mind makes it impossible to mutually negotiate an understanding of how perceptions might differ among individuals in order to arrive at a pragmatic representation that accounts for significant differences in the experiences of various individuals. It bars any discussion of opening up a space for autistics to participate in social communication by clarifying and mapping the ways in which their perceptions differ. Rather than recognize that the success rate of the neurotypical divining rod is based on mere statistical likelihood that the thoughts and feelings of neurotypicals will correlate, they declare it an ineffable gift, and use it to valorize their own abilities and pathologize those of autistics.
A belief in theory of mind makes it unnecessary for neurotypicals to engage in real perspective-taking, since they are able, instead, to fall back on projection. Differences that they discover in autistic thinking are dismissed as pathology, not as a failure in the neurotypical’s supposed skill in theory of mind or perspective-taking.
Ironically, constantly confronted with the differences in their own thinking and that of those around them, and needing to function in a world dominated by a different neurotype, autistics are engaged in learning genuine perspective-taking from the cradle on. The perceived failure in that perspective-taking is thus based on the fact that autistics do not rely on and cannot rely on neurological similarities to crib understanding by projecting their own thoughts and feelings onto others.
As such, autistics talk about themselves rather than others, a feature of autistic narrative that has been pathologized as “typically autistic” by researchers like Ute Frith. The fact that much of autistic writing is dedicated to deconstructing neurotypical fallacies about autistic thinking set in the world when they spoke about (or for) us, and to explaining differences in autistic thinking in order to broker mutual understanding remains unremarked upon, as it would have required adequate perspective-taking to have identified this.
Thus, if we were to summarize the effect of neurotypicals sitting in wells that are structured in much the same way, delimited in much the same way, oriented in the same general direction and located in the same geographic location, manifested as an unassailable belief in their natural gift of theory of mind, we would have to conclude that this belief in theory of mind severely impairs neurotypicals’ ability to perceive that there is sky or even the great sea outside the narrow limits of their purview. It also necessarily impacts their cognitive empathy vis-à-vis autistics and, sadly, their affective empathy as well.
This deficit in neurotypicals needs to be remediated if autistics are to have a chance to participate as equals, because the truth is, in this regard, autistics suffer and are excluded from social communication not because of our own disability, but because of neurotypical disability.
Every classroom that penalizes students for distributed modes of attention organizes learning according to a neurotypical norm. Every classroom that sees the moving body as the distracted body is organized according to a neurotypical norm. Every classroom that teaches predominantly for one mode of perception is organizing its learning according to a norm. Every classroom that knows in advance what knowledge looks and sounds like is working to a norm.
I updated “I’m Autistic. Here’s what I’d like you to know.” with selections from “THINKING PERSON’S GUIDE TO AUTISM: On Hans Asperger, the Nazis, and Autism: A Conversation Across Neurologies” on compliance and behaviorism.
Our non-compliance is not intended to be rebellious. We simply do not comply with things that harm us. But since a great number of things that harm us are not harmful to most neurotypicals, we are viewed as untamed and in need of straightening up.
What I am against are therapies to make us stop flapping our hands or spinning in circles. I am against forbidding children to use sign language or AAC devices to communicate when speech is difficult. I am against any therapy designed to make us look “normal” or “indistinguishable from our peers.” My peers are Autistic and I am just fine with looking and sounding like them.
Here are those selections in the context of their surrounding grafs:
Our non-compliance is not intended to be rebellious. We simply do not comply with things that harm us. But since a great number of things that harm us are not harmful to most neurotypicals, we are viewed as untamed and in need of straightening up. Sheffer writes that Dr. Asperger called this non-compliant trait malicious, mean, and uncontrollable. She notes him describing Autistic children as having a “lack of respect for authority, the altogether lack of disciplinary understanding, and unfeeling malice.” That appears to be the majority opinion of us today as well. If we were not threatening to the social order in some way, there would not be therapies designed to control how we move our bodies and communicate.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not anti-therapy. I embrace therapies that help me with some of my Autistic co-occurring conditions like circadian rhythm disruption and digestive malfunction. I welcome treatments for epilepsy-a co-occurring condition found in 25% – 30% of Autistics-because I’ve seen how much suffering epilepsy brings. My late fiancé died from SUDEP, a fatal complication of epilepsy, and before his death I watched seizures shred his attempts at living a full life. What I am against are therapies to make us stop flapping our hands or spinning in circles. I am against forbidding children to use sign language or AAC devices to communicate when speech is difficult. I am against any therapy designed to make us look “normal” or “indistinguishable from our peers.” My peers are Autistic and I am just fine with looking and sounding like them.