“Neurotypical” is a newer term that’s used to describe individuals of typical developmental, intellectual, and cognitive abilities. In other words, it’s not used to describe individuals who have autism or another developmental difference.

Individuals who live with autism, are on the spectrum, or who have other developmental differences are referred to as “neurodivergent.”

The term “neurodiverse” describes a group of people with atypical developmental, cognitive, or intellectual abilities

The terms “neurotypical”, “neurodivergent”, and “neurodiverse” originated as a more comprehensive way to describe autism. Currently, these terms aren’t recognized in the medical community, but are used by some in the autism community. Instead of seeing autism as a disorder, it’s a way to recognize the rich differences, abilities, and strengths individuals with autism have.

According to some theorists, autism can be described as a human variant with extreme advantages. Instead of seeing autism as a disorder that needs fixing, they see autism as a characteristic of an individual, like having brown hair or being left-handed. Being neurodiverse simply means having a brain that’s wired differently.

Some individuals who support the use of neurotypical and neurodiverse believe that autism doesn’t need a cure. They believe the differences it presents in people should be respected, not feared or belittled.

A group of people within the autism community sometimes use the term “neurotypical” in a way that says individuals who aren’t on the spectrum can be lacking in strengths that those on the spectrum have. For example, they may be too focused on material things or go along with social norms that can be hurtful or destructive to themselves or others.

Not everyone in the autism community agrees that autism isn’t a disorder, so the terms are still somewhat controversial. Some believe that autism is a disorder, so it deserves research and funding to help find a cure. Studies of autism have found that there are certain brain structure and neurotransmitter abnormalities in individuals with autism.

What characterizes neurotypical?

Neurotypical individuals are often described in relation to individuals with autism, so they may have:

  • no problem interacting with peers or having conversation
  • no noticeable speech delays as children
  • no sensory issues, such as not being able to tolerate crowds, loud noises, or being too hot or too cold
  • the ability to adapt to change

What characterizes neurodivergent?

The signs of autism can vary and may be different for older individuals vs. children, for example. The National Institute of Stroke and Neurological Disorders lists the following as typical signs of someone who is neurodivergent:

  • a lack of babbling or pointing by the age of 12 months
  • poor eye contact
  • no smiling or social responsiveness
  • not responding to their name
  • fixation on lining up toys or objects that appears more than typical
  • no single words by the age of 16 months
  • no two-word phrases by age of 2 years

In older individuals, signs can include:

  • low social interaction
  • inability to initiate or hold a conversation
  • lack of social play
  • repetitive language
  • intense, focused interest, usually on an object or subject
  • fixation on certain routines or rituals

Just like all types of medical conditions, there are differing degrees of autism, and some individuals have more severe challenges with their autism diagnosis. This why the terms “neurodiverse” and “neurodivergent” can be helpful in being used, as the different degrees of autism are very diverse.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders lists several diagnoses that fall under the label of autism, such as Asperger’s syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder, and pervasive developmental disorders not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS).

Individuals on the spectrum have many abilities. Every individual has their own unique strengths and characteristics that can be acknowledged and celebrated. For example, neurodiversity from conditions such as Asperger’s and autism often have positive characteristics such as:

  • being able to approach situations differently and think “outside of the box”
  • strong abilities with systems, such as computer programming and mathematics
  • creativity
  • no pressure to conform to social “norms” that may not go alongside their own personal idea of happiness
  • musical abilities
  • above-average attention to detail
  • strong visual-spatial skills
  • skills in art and design

No matter which terms you use to describe autism and spectrum disorders, it’s important to recognize the different abilities and strengths that neurodiverse individuals have. There are many ways to look at autism, so discovering new outlooks and theories may help look at autism in a new light.

If you or a loved one has autism, find a local support group, therapist, or other medical provider who can help you discuss some of the strengths of being neurodiverse.