What does ‘neurotypical’ even mean?

I recently saw some philosophers discussing – well, more dismissing – the concept of the ‘neurotypical’. This is something I’ve seen a few times now. Personally I think the term is useful. Here I’ll have a go at defining it, offering some historical context, and offering a metaphysics of neurotypicality.

It will be helpful to begin with some history. The term ‘neurotypical’ was first used for part satirical, part political, purposes. Although it may have emerged earlier, it is usually dated back to autistic advocate Laura Tisoncik’s website on the ‘Institute for the Study of the Neurologically Typical’ (ISNT), launched in 1998.

The ISNT was a fictional institute whose spoof website (archived here) that was essentially used by autistic people to satirically reverse the psychiatric gaze back on to people considered ‘normal’. On this website, as Tisoncik recalls, a range of autistic writers “picked apart characteristics of neurotypical individuals in the same patronizing, pathologizing, voice in which traits commonly held by autistic people are described, with feigned obliviousness to how such traits might also be useful.”

This part playful, part political term, quickly caught on, even being discussed in the Atlantic that same year. In time, it came to be used by an ever-increasing number of cognitively or psycho-socially disabled people, to refer to those who were enabled to, and willing to conform to, the dominant forms of cognition and sociality of a given society. I’ll come back to this below.

Before we go on to this, it is also worth noting another publication from 1998, which is Judy Singer’s seminal thesis (reprinted here) for which she coined the term ‘neurodiversity’. In this thesis, Singer drew on not just Tisocnik’s concept (they were in contact at the time). She also drew on the historian Lennard Davis’s book Enforcing Normacly, which provided a critical history of the idea of the ‘normal’ body and mind, and detailed how these came to be seen as ideals used not just for scientific research and also social control.

Davis located the idea of the normal body largely in Adolphe Quetelet’s 1835 book The Average Man, which was the first work to propose the idea of an ideal ‘average’ person determined by statistical analysis. For Quetelet, this person would consist in the mean, abstracted from all the people of a specific nation or species. He primarily thought this would be useful for medicine (it was Quetelet who devised the Body Mass Index). Yet he also saw this as the ideal person of post-revolutionary France: the average man would be, in his own words, a “type of perfection” while further from it lay “monstrosity”. No Longer would the high priest or king be the ideal, but the man in the middle, the average man – in this instance, the cognitively abled, white, middle-income man.

Quetelet was wrong about the perfection of the average man. We can see this when we consider recent uses of FaceApp to morph the “average” faces of both Democrat and Republican senators. Yet Quetelet’s work would go on to have profound impact on how the Europeans of his day came to understand themselves and their place in the world, and would also contribute to the rise of eugenics, phrenology, psychometrics, and psychiatric pathologisation over the following century.

These later interventions – most notably through the work of the eugenicist Francis Galton, as I’ve written about here – would lead to different ways of ranking humans, in terms of mental and bodily ‘abilities’ that, despite being relationally enabled or disenabled given the environment, would be reified as if they formed a natural hierarchy. On this hierarchy, the disabled would sit at the bottom, the ‘normal’ people in the middle, and the super-normal (with high intelligence, and so forth) at the top.

It is this hierarchy and its surrounding ideology (including ableist notions such as ‘genius’ or ‘low functioning’) that autistic and other neurodivergent activists later came to protest, and to satirise with the concept of the neurotypical. It is important to note, though, that it was recognised right from the time Quetelet published his 1835 book that no actual individual would fit perfectly with the idealised average man. Rather, the average man was an abstraction that one could have closer or further proximity to. Hence, as autistic sociologist Damian Milton asserts, “there is no neuro-typical to deviate from other than an idealised fantastical construction of Galtonian inspired psychological measurement.”

This raises the question of how we can make sense of the metaphysics of neurotypicality today. While I don’t think there is one right way to theorise this, I’ve found the work of Iris Marion Young helpful. In particular her 1994 article “Gender as Seriality: Thinking about Women as a Social Collective”, which discussed the metaphysics of social class and gender.

Young’s key move was, following Sartre, to distinguish between ‘groups’ and ‘serial collectives’. On her reading, this groups are grounded by each member sharing an internal trait with the others. To give a basic example: all people with Covid-19 share the same virus, and thus can be seen as a group. By contrast, ‘serial collectives’ share not an essential internal trait but a relation to material and social reality. A simple example might be: all the people waiting for a late bus. These people have no essential internal trait that distinguishes them from everyone else, but they do share a relationship with the bus, and the lateness of the bus, that others do not. Young herself used this to provide a materialist, yet anti-essentialist, analysis of social class and gender, suggesting that terms such as ‘woman’ or ‘working class’ indicate members of serial collectives rather than groups.

Similarly, I’ve found it helpful to think about the neurotypical, on the one hand, and neurodivergent disabilities, on the other, as different serial collectives. Neither neurotypicality nor disabilities such as autism or bipolar have any essential neurological traits. But given different material conditions, physical structures, perceived economic needs, not to mention norms and practices relating to congitition, class, gender, and race, different people come to be more or less enabled indifferent times and places, and thus to do better or worse on psychological tests, and so forth. Hence, as I previously argued with regard to autistics and neurotypicals:

“the key difference between the neurotypical and the autistic seems to be this: certain social developments are geared toward supporting clusters of psychological characteristics that have no natural unity but which are unified with respect to their contingently perceived positive economic or social utility, as well as their relationship to external structures and norms. Individuals who exhibit such clusters of socially useful psychological or behavioral characteristics belong to one serial. Since this serial is of contingent social utility, our environments have been arranged to support and further enable individuals who exhibit such characteristics. This serial collective is the comparatively enabled neurotypical.”

By contrast, neurodivergent disabilities forms different serial collectives:

“other clusters of psychological characteristics may for contingent, social, historical reasons be perceived as relatively useless or undesirable. As with the clusters of “positive” characteristics, the explanation of the unity of such “negative” clusters is largely given by their perceived economic or social disutility (which is socially and historically contingent), rather than by a natural grouping. Moreover, far fewer social resources are invested in supporting individuals with such characteristics, insofar as society is not structured around their needs, thus reinforcing their initial marginalization. They are, thus, comparatively disabled by their environments”

These are the various collectives we call ‘autistics’, ‘dyslexics’, and so forth. They do not share any essential internal traits, but rather very rough clusters of traits. Those who have enough traits of these clusters are comparatively disenabled in a given society, depending on its social and material constitution.

So ‘neurotypical’ is not a fixed kind of mind or natural grouping. It refers to all those people whose general neurocognitive functioning falls broadly within the norms, and becomes enabled by, their culture or society for a given period. And unless there is a flaw in my analysis, the serial collective concept allows us to make sense of this, by acknowledge such relative social positionings while avoiding untenable essentialist claims about internal neurological traits.