Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Neurotypical Syndrome Played Straight

In every blog, business, journal, or website with a strong tie to the subject of autism, there is inevitably a description of what autism is, usually reflecting the author's opinions more than any actual evidence. These descriptions are necessary for awareness campaigns, and occasionally useful to the self-identification process. The "What Is Autism?" section of Acting NT attempts to stand against complete bollocks like deficits and extreme male brain, but there is a major issue it doesn't fully address: Comparison.

Descriptions of autism, even ones from authors who support neurodiversity, tend to use words like different, atypical, and even deficit; judgments of "severity" are based on factors that are more or less than... what, exactly? Deficient compared to what? Different from what? From neurotypical of course, though this is rarely specified. Instead it is assumed that neurotypical is "normal" (a word that should always be in scare quotes) and every other neurotype is therefore a deviant that can only be defined by how it compares to neurotypical. What the authors of these descriptions fail to recognize- probably fail to even comprehend- is that autistic people have no knowledge of this "normal". For an autistic person, autistic is the only normal. For an autistic person, neurotypical is weird, mysterious, puzzling, and abnormal, because we autistics have never experienced being neurotypical and have no psychic powers with which to gain insight in the absence of education.

Without knowing what neurotypical is, telling me how I am different from it is less useful than telling me how my thoughts are different from an alligator's thoughts. Whenever I mention an item of pop culture on this blog, I link the name to a page (usually Wikipedia) that offers more details of what is being referenced. I do this because explaining thing A by comparison to thing B is useless if you don't know what thing B is either.

Imagine that someone is trying to describe a new genre of music to you: They say that it's like techno but heavier, more chaotic, and with more bass; except you have never heard a techno song, so you didn't even know that techno had bass or that it was unusual to have more of it. You don't know if techno is numb and repetitive and this new genre is only slightly looser, or if techno is already chaotic and this new genre is a complete mind-fuck. Heavier? You don't even know what that means. It's simply not a very informative description. This analogy isn't complete though, so let's take it a step further: Forget you ever knew the word techno; it is simply called music. There are no genres, only normal music and incomplete music. Classical is music that is lacking the crispness and precision of electronic production. Hip-hop is music that is obsessed with vocals and lacking melody. Metal is run through filters yet never quite matches any sound that a computer produces; clearly it is not trying hard enough. This heavy chaotic stuff is very high-production; if you just turned down the bass and made it a little more predictable, it could definitely pass for normal music. Ah, but now I'm on a tangent about functioning labels.

The point is that this is how autism is being explained to autistic people. No wonder so many have doubts in the self-identification process: I am normal, yet autism is described as a difference from normal. Thanks to the logical absolutes, my senses can't possibly be more sensitive than my senses, my social difficulties more difficult than my social difficulties, or my logic more logical than my logic. Only someone who knows what neurotypical is can tell me that I behave differently from neurotypical. Even if they do, autism is largely an internal experience, one which a neurotypical person cannot also experience. In short, we're all just guessing.

Other authors (most of them autistic) have written very insulting descriptions of "neurotypical disorder" or "people with NT syndrome" and this is understandable as their anger is justified. I'm angry too, but that tactic is not productive. What follows is an honest attempt to help other autistic people cope with a neurotypical world. Below the dashed line you will find no sarcasm or satire, no insinuations of disorder or syndrome, and no "person"-first language or other linguistic contortions existing just to make a point. It is not my goal to insult anyone, although I can't promise that you won't feel insulted. There are generalizations, since it is impossible to speak simultaneously about 6 billion people without generalizing. Also note that the words autistic and neurotypical are used in contrast, however the proper antonym of autistic is allistic and not every allistic person is neurotypical. Lastly, as I cannot describe what I don't know, this is from an English-speaking, United States perspective.


What is neurotypical? (From an autistic perspective)

Neurotypical, abbreviated from neurologically typical, is a neurotype- in the same way that autistic, bipolar, cerebral palsy, dyslexic, ADD, OCD, Down syndrome, psychotic, sociopathic, and schizophrenic are neurotypes- a variant of human neurology characterized by distinct patterns of development, reasoning, sensory experience, and common areas of skill or lack thereof. Neurotypical is the most common neurotype, occurring in about 90% of the human population.

The word autism was only coined as recently as 1942, yet autistic people have existed long before that. In similar fashion, neurotypicals have existed as long as the human species has, even though the English word was not coined until the 1990's. The neurotypical brain has never been formally diagnosed or otherwise treated as a disorder, therefore there are no specific criteria, only general patterns observable through neurology, psychology, and sociology.


The only neurotype with an identified genetic cause is that of Down syndrome, which is a chromosomal mutation. Neither genetics nor environments have been implicated in causing neurotypical development, although genetics are more likely. Neurotypical behavior has been observed in babies, therefore the cause would have to be in utero or infancy.

Children of neurotypical parents tend to be neurotypical themselves, although it is not remotely a guarantee. In many cases, parents who were previously believed neurotypical are reclassified after observing similarities with their more obviously neurodivergent (non-NT) children.

Neurotypicality cannot be acquired, but it can be cured. The most common instance of a neurotypical person changing neurotype is one who acquires both brain damage and cerebral palsy. Attempting to intentionally gain CP this way would be highly dangerous, since brain damage can also cause death. There is no treatment or intervention for neurotypicality, because just like autism, it's not a disorder.

Although most research into the human brain is still tentative and speculative, the most accepted difference between autistics and neurotypicals is that NT brains are believed to have less white matter, or synaptic connectivity. In general, this means that a neurotypical person experiences the world less chaotically and with less detail. It may also have an effect on learning, memory, and creativity; in other words, intelligence. While some neurotypicals are very intelligent, they are not known to obtain savant-level skills.

More specific signs of neurotypicality are outlined below.


As implied in the preface, I do not believe that neurotypicals have any sort of "deficiency" in sensory processing. They are simply specialized in a way that is different from the autistic specialization: While an autistic person tends to perceive, in detail, everything that they can sense, a neurotypical person tends to perceive one object at a time and lose awareness of the rest. The advantage is that an NT can more easily focus on one thing. The disadvantage is that they often miss details.

Neurotypicals may experience pain just like anyone else when met with an extremely bright light or loud sound. However, the acceptable threshold is much higher for NTs than for autistics. Neurotypicals do not experience sensory overload or meltdowns.

Visual (seeing)
Neurotypicals execute a significant portion of their nonverbal communication with just their eyes. This is why actors are often told "it's all about the eyes." NTs become uncomfortable when they perceive too much or too little eye contact (a generalized discomforting feeling, unlike the painful sting of eye contact for some autistics). This is a subconscious response to what, for neurotypicals, is a sign of intimidation (lots of eye contact) or dishonesty (little or no eye contact). NTs have difficulty consciously overriding this response, even when they know that the eye contact of the person they are interacting with is an autistic behavior and unrelated to honesty or intentions. One reason for this is an inability to link the feeling of discomfort to the event that caused it, suggesting a possible impairment of introspection.

Auditory (hearing)
Neurotypicals focus intensely on conversations they are engaged in, and less commonly, on specific sounds they are anticipating. NTs easily and automatically ignore (to the point of being unaware of) industrial sounds such as moving cars, nature sounds such as birds tweeting, music without a live musician, and other people's conversations.

Olfactory (smelling)
Neurotypical olfaction is less sensitive than autistic olfaction. Humans in general are among the weakest animals in smelling ability, and neurotypicals are especially insensitive.

Gustatory (tasting)
Neurotypical gustation is less sensitive than autistic gustation. Though all people including NTs have preferences, favorite and disliked food, most NTs eat from every major food group (bread, fruit, vegetable, meat, and dairy). Most NTs have no problem with the carbonation of soda or the heat from peppers. Some NTs are so insensitive to heat that they mistakenly refer to food as not spicy instead of mild. The ability to recognize specific ingredients from a mix is considered a special skill known to NTs only if they have honed it by working in the culinary industry (or cooking as a hobby).

Innervative (touching)
Neurotypical innervation is generally numb relative to autistic innervation. Neurotypicals will only flinch or recoil at a touch if it is from someone whom they particularly dislike, or if it is an especially painful object such as a hot coal or a blade. There are social reasons to reject a touch, such as male-on-male affection being rejected as un-masculine, but these aspects of culture do not apply to NTs exclusively. A bad NT experience with clothing is typically a gradual fatigue lasting at least several hours, not an immediate reaction to the fit and textures. Most neurotypicals consider sex to be the pinnacle of physical pleasure. Furthermore, there is an extreme emphasis, especially from NT males, on the orgasm, above all other aspects. Neurotypicals overlook many enjoyable textures such as soft fabric and fur, because neurotypical innervation is not sensitive enough to appreciate them.

Proprioceptive (moving and orienting)
The neurotypical application of proprioception is mostly subconscious. It is something that is always on at a consistent level, not a skill that can be concentrated or rested. Common tasks such as walking are rarely a problem for an NT, but it may be difficult to master new skills such as dancing, stretching, and gymnastics.

Vestibular (balancing)
Most neurotypicals are satisfied with the amount of vestibular input they receive. Because most machines are designed with neurotypicals in mind, they very rarely overtax the vestibular system.


Like autistics, neurotypicals do have a theory of mind, which is a fancy psychology term for the understanding that other people don't think or know the same things you do. What NTs lack is a particular application of theory of mind: They easily understand that a thought such as a picture or word is not shared, but do not understand that another person may use a completely different thought process to arrive at the same conclusion, or why the person may arrive at a different conclusion.

Though not an absolute cognitive limitation, neurotypicals often assume that knowledge they have deeply internalized, and skills they find easy, are universal. This assumption leads to prejudging people without the same skills and knowledge as lazy and stupid. In general, NTs are more likely than autistics to make assumptions about what another person knows. Some NTs engage in perspective-taking exercises, most of which are detestably insufficient. Closing one's eyes for a minute to simulate blindness is one example. The person doing this does not understand that being blind all day, every day, for years is a very different experience from temporary blindness, on both the personal and interpersonal levels.

A neurotypical's acquisition of knowledge is mostly motivated by need, not interest. Although neurotypicals are capable of intense interest, they do not pursue special interests the same way autistics do. While knowledge itself is a source of autistic joy, neurotypicals only intentionally learn when the knowledge is a necessary step towards a more interesting goal, or required by an outside force such as an employer or school. Even when interested, neurotypicals acquire new knowledge and learn new skills at a slower pace than autistics. This could be attributed to interest, retention, or a discrepancy in the raw processing power of the brain, but these reasons are speculation. The skill of social interaction with other neurotypicals is a major exception to the slow pace of NT learning. The mastery of socials skills is based on an intuitive use of both verbal and nonverbal language, rather than a conscious understanding of the underlying principles.

Once a neurotypical person forms a belief, it is set in stone. The implications of this rigidity apply both to fundamental aspects of identity such as religion, as well as inconsequential issues such as liking or disliking a video game. It is nearly impossible to convince an NT to change an opinion through logical arguments, even if they originally used logic to arrive at their conclusion. Instead, a change of belief is a gradual journey of absorbing information through mostly impersonal, non-threatening media. However, NTs are unlikely to begin such a journey because they do not seek knowledge for its own sake. Their susceptibility to confirmation bias is another hindrance.

Logic & Emotion

For someone who is neurotypical, these two aspects of the mind are related. Specifically, their relationship is adversarial. Neurotypicals find it extremely difficult to act logically and emotionally at the same time. Neurotypicals experience their emotions as a separate force that influences them, rather than an extension of themselves influencing how they present. Thus it is assumed that one's rational mind and current emotional state may have two different intentions.

During times of extreme emotion, neurotypicals usually act upon those emotions at the expense of rationality. An NT may recognize that their actions are emotionally motivated, but they lack the necessary introspective capacity to realize that what their emotions suggest is at odds with their core principles. After the fact, neurotypicals usually try to defend and justify their emotional behavior externally, even if they regret it internally.

Neurotypicals experience the emotion of boredom at a greater frequency and intensity than autistics. The need to remain active is primarily driven by an aversion to the feeling of inactivity. Neurotypicals have difficulty coping with boredom on their own, usually requiring another person to entertain them in order to stop feeling bored.

Neurotypicals are much better at abstract skills such as language and art than they are at logical skills such as reasoning and math. In a debate or argument, most neurotypicals are able to overpower an autistic opponent with their use of language, despite committing numerous fallacies. Neurotypicals have a weak internal editor, allowing them to speak, write, and create without first worrying whether their creation is good. This can be advantageous, since it is usually better to create freely and occasionally fail than to not create at all.

Unlike autistics, neurotypicals seem to have no need or even preference for consistent rules. This may tie into the underlying white matter theory, suggesting that the neurotypical brain is disparate and fundamentally compartmentalized. Neurotypicals feel little compulsion to adhere to rules set by themselves or others, instead seeing them more as loose guidelines. This explains why highways with mostly NT drivers seem to not only break the speed limit but be generally unaware of it.

Neurotypicals are able to apply a set of rules, such as logical reasoning, to one aspect of their worldview while exempting another aspect. This explains how some neurotypicals seem generally intelligent while simultaneously believing in deities or the Loch Ness monster. Compartmentalization is an enabling function for hypocrisy. A neurotypical hypocrite may not realize that they are a hypocrite, because they able to condemn the actions of others without accessing the memories of their own actions.


In general, neurotypical speech is more metaphorical and expressionist than literal. Neurotypicals rarely specify whether they are speaking literally or metaphorically, so it is easy to mistake the metaphors for lies. An idiom like "bringing home the bacon" is a direct metaphor, in which the word bacon is substituted for the word that is actually meant, money. A literal interpretation of this statement would frame it as a lie if no actual bacon is presented, but the person who said it never had actual bacon in mind. When a neurotypical states "I will be at your house at 6 PM." they are not really planning to wait and watch the clock until it is exactly 6:00. They are planning to aim generally within the 6:00-6:30 window. Although it is still objectively a lie, neurotypicals consider blatant lies, half-truths, and lies of omission to be entirely separate categories rather than variations within the same umbrella. An NT does not believe that they are committing the transgression of lying while committing a half-truth or a lie of omission. Neurotypicals also tell blatant lies more often than autistics, for various reasons.

Most people use some amount of sarcasm, regardless of neurotype. NTs are not especially good or bad at using sarcasm, but are good at detecting it. NTs interpret the language of others based on an expectation of similarity to themselves. They are good at picking up sarcasm because it follows their own speech patterns. The same applies to metaphors and expressionism. The flip side is that the NTs may incorrectly perceive sarcasm, metaphors, and expressionism from a person who was speaking literally. This is most evident in written language, to which NTs ascribe tone where by nature there is none.

Small talk
Unlike autistics who find small talk highly discomforting, neurotypicals need small talk and are uncomfortable without it. If a conversation starts out immediately on topics of importance, even if no one is requesting or revealing personal information, any neurotypicals involved will feel invaded and unsafe. It is as if they got into a car and instantly started driving without buckling up or even closing the door. Even in situations like business meetings, where efficiency is prioritized, if a neurotypical is in charge, the conversation will begin with small talk, because it is so vital to the neurotypicals' comfort.

While autistics have both immediate and delayed echolalia, neurotypicals only have delayed echolalia. This takes the form of routine greetings such as "how are you?" and the minimalist "Sup." Some of these routines take on multiple stages, like the first 5 moves in a game of Chess. After an NT asks "how are you?", the expected response is "fine, and you?" which passes the turn back to the NT. If the person responding omits the crucial "and you?" invitation, or answers something completely different such as "actually I feel like shit today", this breaks the routine and brings great discomfort to the neurotypical person who was not expecting it to be broken.


In addition to their own dishonest tendencies, neurotypicals often prefer to be lied to, particularly if the truth is something they consider undesirable. This is one of the reasons NTs are, statistically, more religious than autistics. When a neurotypical poses a question like the sitcom cliché, "does this dress make me look fat?", the desired response is no, even if the objectively verifiable truth is yes. The NT would likely be angered by an affirmative answer; fat is considered a negative trait by this NT, and she (in an actual sitcom it would certainly be a woman) wishes to be told that she is not fat, even if she is, in fact, fat.

Introverts and extroverts comprise about an equal portion of the neurotypical population. This means that NTs, on average, are more extroverted than autistics. A common stereotype of both autistics and introverts is that we prefer to be alone. Not true. Humans are a social species and tend to enjoy each other's company. The introvert-extrovert spectrum is only a description of how energy flows: Introverts are fatigued by social experiences and need to be alone in order to recharge, but that says nothing about preferences. Extroverts, by contrast, gain energy from other people and may feel depleted when alone. NT introversion and autistic introversion manifest in the same way. People in every combination of autistic, neurotypical, introvert, and extrovert can experience the same degrees of loneliness, although NTs and extroverts may be lonely less often. Neurotypicals are more likely than autistics to seek help from another individual instead of trying to solve a problem on their own.

Neurotypicals are much more conformist than autistics. NTs have a habit of forming groups, particularly with other NTs. Neurotypicals are subject to assortative mating, although the effect may be exaggerated by ableist discrimination. Sometimes groups are formed, ironically, by division. Neurotypicals can acquire prejudice automatically, sometimes over trivial things like fashion. Rejecting those who are different is an implicit endorsement of those who are the same. Similar people are likely to come together by alienating others, and form groups organically.

Groups of neurotypicals have a herd mentality. Members of these groups feel tremendous pressure, sometimes imposed intentionally by the group's leaders, to fit in with the group. The herd mentality has a pervasive effect on individual behavior. Group members drift closer in fashion, language, interests, and even beliefs. This is most apparent in political parties and religious sects. In addition to general rigidity, neurotypicals automatically reject evidence and arguments that conflict with the positions of their groups.

Neurotypicals have an automatic respect for authority, beginning with their parents. Subverting this respect requires the authority to commit an overwhelming injustice in the eyes of the NT. Minor transgressions, and some not so minor, are excused, especially if the person committing them is a fellow group member with the NT. Combined with prejudice and herd mentality, this can give the appearance of a lack of empathy. Multiple studies have shown that a neurotypical person will repeatedly press a button that physically harms another test subject, as long as someone who is wearing a lab coat tells them to do so. An outsider without authority is not so easily obeyed or excused.

Neurotypicals have difficulty socially interfacing with neurodivergent (non-NT) people. In the case of autistics, neurotypicals have an almost complete inability to read body language, sometimes even forming conclusions that are the exact opposite of the truth. This is generally not a disabling condition for the NT, since only 10% of the people an NT meets are neurodivergent, and even among that 10%, many choose to pass as neurotypical. Neurotypicals intuitively learn the nonverbal cues of other neurotypicals. Neurotypicals are not simply born knowing these cues- they must be learned- so an NT may have difficulty with an NT from another culture, even if the two are speaking the same verbal language. Still, NTs are better at understanding other NTs than autistics are, just as autistics are better at understanding other autistics than NTs are.