The title of this post flips the focus of the diagnostic lens from neurodivergent students to neurotypical adults. Let’s take a look at the neurotypical mind using the pathologizing language of disorder.
Neurotypical syndrome is a neurobiological disorder characterised by preoccupation with social concerns, delusions of superiority, and obsession with conformity. There is no known cure.
Perhaps the most obvious giveaway is an NT’s tendency to make “small talk” or to want to “chat” with you. While small talk appears to be nonfunctional, for NTs it serves a very specific purpose. It’s a good idea to humor them and participate to whatever degree you can tolerate. If you’re patient with them, many NTs will soon feel comfortable enough to move from small talk to more interesting, in-depth conversations.
Source: What is neurotypical?
My oldest is autistic. He attended elementary school until a few years ago, when we started unschooling. He has an incredible memory that provides gritty texture to his stories of his time there. Stories about forced neurotypicalization, lack of empathy and understanding, and color-coded behaviorism. Stories about the pathologizing of his wonderful mind that killed confidence, making room for shame to unfurl. Such stories are common in deficit and medical model cultures, which is why we need a social model awakening.
A pernicious stereotype about autism is that autistic people lack empathy. To be openly autistic is to encounter and endure this supremely harmful trope. One of the cruel ironies of autistic life is that autistic folks are likely to be hyper-empathic. Another irony is that neurotypicals and NT society are really, really bad at empathy and reciprocity. When your neurotype is the default, you have little motivation to grow critical capacity. Marginalization develops critical distance and empathic imagination.
We have an empathy problem, and it’s not one confined to autistic people. It’s a double empathy problem.
The ‘double empathy problem’ refers to the mutual incomprehension that occurs between people of different dispositional outlooks and personal conceptual understandings when attempts are made to communicate meaning.
Neurodivergent people are forced to attempt understanding of neurotypical people and society. We are constantly judged and assessed by neurotypical standards. We must analyze and interpret in order to conform and pass so that we can get the sticker, the “cool kid cash”, and the promotion. There is almost no reciprocity in return. Let’s change that. Turn the diagnostic lens upon yourself. Question assumptions, learn about other matrices of sociality, and reciprocate.
Empathy and communication go two ways, and neurotypical folks haven’t shown much interest in meeting neurodivergent folks halfway. Reciprocity is a basic tenet of social skills, and neurotypicals are often incapable of reciprocity outside of their usual scripts. We autistics are called mind-blind by folks who have made zero effort to understand and empathize with neurodivergent minds, who are utterly ignorant of alternative matrices of sociality.
Source: Autistic Empathy – Ryan Boren
In that post on autistic empathy are many resources to help neurotypical folks develop empathy for neurodivergent perspectives. My school district’s work on in-class inclusion of neurodivergent and disabled students is a great and wonderful relief. Segregation is always lesser and wrong. Let’s continue that progress toward social model understanding with attention to the mutual incomprehension of the double empathy problem. “When the adults change, everything changes.”
To be defined as abnormal in society is often conflated with being perceived as ‘pathological’ in some way and to be socially stigmatised, shunned and sanctioned. Then, if there is a breakdown in interaction, or indeed a failed attempt to align toward expressions of meaning, a person who sees their interactions as ‘normal’ and ‘correct’ can denigrate those who act or are perceived as ‘different’ (Tajfeel & Turner, 1979). If one can apply a label on the ‘other’ locating the problem in them, it also resolves the applier of the label’s ‘natural attitude’ of responsibility in their own perceptions and the breach is healed perceptually, but not for the person who has been ‘bothered’ (Said, 1978).
“Empathy is not an autistic problem, it’s a human problem, it’s a deficit in imagination.” We can’t truly step into another neurotype, but we can seek story and perspective. I’ll leave you with this video offering a taste what it is like to endure the daily gauntlet of neurotypical questioning. To not respond to questions is to be called rude. To not respond will get you publicly color-coded as an orange or red and denied perks that the compliant NT kids get. To not exchange this disposable social styrofoam is to be a problem. Make it stop. Empathize with what it is like to navigate these interactions while dealing with the sensory overwhelm of raucous environments not designed for you.