In his opinion, “the vast majority of neuroscientists will probably have never heard of these terms”.
Other experts are more positive about the terms. “I think that the term neurotypical is a good one and is an improvement over the term normal,” says Thomas Armstrong, author and executive director of the American Institute of Learning. “It doesn't necessarily define what is ideal, as an abstract concept, but it says this is what's typical.” That makes it preferable to something like “normal”, in his eyes.
Even so, Armstrong agrees that reality is far more subtle than these terms would suggest. “We typically see kids do X, Y, and Z. So, in terms of defining these kids, we can say neurotypical, but to tell you the truth, ultimately, I see that the more we learn about a child, the more they appear in their true diversity as a unique individual. And if we see each child, each teen, each adult as a unique individual, then all bets are off as far as creating a dividing line between those who are neuro-diverse and those who are neurotypical.”
Nature vs nurture
These may seem like academic disputes. Ultimately, many people with conditions like autism find that the term neurodiversity (and its contrast, neurotypical) is a useful and positive way of self-defining their identity and their community. There’s certainly a need to reduce the stigma.
As Armstrong argues, we should try to question our assumptions about different behaviours and the value judgements we place on them. He points out that when he is delivering lectures, some people with autism will walk around the room. Clearly, that is not the way that most of the stationary audience are behaving. “But why is it ‘abnormal’ to want to move and learn at the same time?”
After all, these norms are often the result of social convention. “We're set up with a culture in such a way that we have expectations for behaviour, we have constants, we have guidelines, we have morals – and all for good reason,” says Armstrong. “Society would fall apart without that. [But] I like to look back at the whole picture, and when I do that it makes the concept of normal very, very questionable, very muddy. And that's why I like to call people's attention to it, so that they don't automatically fall into unconscious or implicit biases.”