Are You Neurotypical?

This is a post about labels. I’ve known for a while that I’m not “normal.” I experience the world differently from most other people I’ve met, but it took me many years to figure this out.

I seem to be more sensitive to sensory input, be it visual or auditory or tactile. I also very easily pick up the emotions of people or songs I’m exposed to, which can send my mood wildly swinging from hour to hour, and leave me in a state of frayed recovery. Various labels have been attached to me in the past couple of years as I gathered data on myself – Tourette’s, Asperger’s, OCD, Migraneur, Bipolar. Definitely not neurotypical.

But what really *is* neurotypical? What is normal? Does such a thing even exist? Maybe our minds are like our bodies – we all have slightly different tints to our skin, and grow to different heights. There’s no “normal” body, so why should there be a normal mind?

Here’s another interesting tidbit. It turns out “high level of empathy” is a better description of the collection of sensitivities I have than any of the other labels I’ve tried on. If I had accepted any one of my previous labels, I would be medicated and stigmatized. I actually did notice a negative effect on my self-image when I imagined keeping the Bipolar label, for example. However, when I try on Empathy as my diagnosis, I feel positive, giving, and compassionate towards myself and others. I feel like taking better care of myself. And who would medicate empathy?

The point I want to make is that the earlier labels were useful for me to try on for a while, so that I could learn about people who experience the world in similar ways to me. But there came a time to incorporate this learning into my life and drop the label.

The most surprising realization for me was that most people don’t see what I see or hear what I hear or smell what I smell or feel on their skin what I feel on mine. I hadn’t ever considered that possibility before, so I started asking people, “Hey, is the noise level in this room causing you pain in your body? Do you smell that person coming down the street towards us? Doesn’t wearing jeans instead of soft clothes make you super irritable? Don’t your moods change drastically every hour? So you’re saying you don’t constantly have to be moving some part of your body?” To my surprise, most people say no to these kinds of questions, and only a few say yes.

This insight gave me a vocabulary for explaining to others what I’m experiencing, and finding ways to make things easier for me, rather than beat myself up about not being able to do what other people seem to find so simple, like being in a space with more than two other people to talk to, or sitting in a loud restaurant. It also helped me to realize what my particular talents are – things I find easy that other people find hard, like remembering things photographically, or organizing huge messes of ideas into a simple structure, or executing plans with lightning speed. I’ve learned that I connect with people deeply and quickly one-on-one, and am often trusted with very personal pain, because I’m not afraid to sit and be in that pain with them. So I’m discovering my strengths as well as ways to ease my challenges.

I think we probably all have some things that are unusually challenging for us. We just tend to hide our non-neurotypicality to fit in. What if more people decided to be open about how they see the world, and what if every neurotype were beautiful and accepted? We would learn so much about each other, and about ourselves. We would have the information to create environments and systems to help each of us thrive. Maybe we wouldn’t hate ourselves so much.

A final thought: if your self-experiments or the medical system suggest labels to you, why not dive into that label, see how it can help you, and then let it go. You are more than a label, and there is no neurotypical.

(I’ve also been deeply exploring how labels apply to relationships, which is possibly a topic for a future post.)

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24 Responses to Are You Neurotypical?

  1. TD says:

    Hello Alexandra, thanks for this post. Can you elaborate more on the methodology you used to glean these insights? Is this speculation based on your own self-assessment and using a label provided by a medical organization? Are there tests that can be taken that conclude what you said above? You also seem to have a population sample to compare yourself with — who are they? Are they a representative sample?

    Sorry for all the questions. I give Seth Roberts flack too when he fails to provide evidence or tests and relies on hunches. In this particular case, it must be noted that it’s not possible to know what *other* people are feeling since we only have ourselves to work with. However, I’m most interested to see how you made the assessments above.

    Thanks.

  2. Alexandra Carmichael says:

    Thanks TD! I’ve been tracking my mood multiple times a day for over a year, using a shared google calendar. I posted about that methodology back in June. I’ve shared some of it with my therapist, who suggested some of the labels to me. I’ve taken psychological assessment tests. And I’ve had very interesting conversations with groups of people who self-identify in the labels above, as well as people who don’t. My point is to encourage people to become aware of their individual challenges and strengths, and to have the courage to share them with others. Mood is such a poorly understood issue that it would be great to have a more open discussion.

    • TD says:

      Looking forward to the day when there will be systems (based on biofeedback) that can help us track this mood issue, which I find very pesky myself. I’d rather depend on tangible feedback than self-reporting because I know bias can slip in there. I also can’t imagine working with quantified methods and then adhering to the framework of the APA and DSM, which to me is the antithesis of correct testing. Every year they come up with new definitions and new standards, and I envision my own testing and tracking as moving away from that paradigm.

      Thanks Alexandra, great work here, and thanks for being open.

      • Great points, TD. But I would add that (IMHO) there doesn’t have to be a hard distinction between empirical (biofeedback) and subjective (self-reported) data vis a vis analysis of mood. I think both go hand in hand. As an example; I’ve begun to incorporate this into my management of patients with diabetes. I suspect that an over-reliance on “good numbers” (objective empirical evidence) without an appreciation for how those numbers relate to a patient’s mood and other factors is a key instrumental in determining compliance, understanding and disease literacy in patients with diabetes. Frankly, I still don’t have the answer regarding how to insert assessment of mood into diabetic care plans but my (anecdotal) experience has been that it is an oft neglected and important aspect of the care of such patients.

        Regards.

  3. Ping Chen says:

    Thank you Alexandra for posting this insight. I often feel isolated because of my sensitivity. I do not experience mood swings like you do. But I often avoid face to face contact with others because of my ability for others to share their deepest pain in life with me (one on one of course).
    Blogging is such a great tool to connect. Thanks again.

  4. Denise Springer says:

    I’ve been trying on labels for years. I just dive in and explore whatever that label has to give me until I incorporate those gifts and then move on to try a new label that crosses my path. Currently, I’m especially enjoying giftedness and Dabrowski’s idea of overexcitabilities. The best thing about this current exploration is finding other people who also identify as emotionally, intellectually and imaginationally overexcitable. With this mindset, I am able to identify people with whom I feel at home much more quickly. I “get” them and they “get” me. It’s lovely. And Dabrowski didn’t consider any of this to be illness but more a path to greater development. Love it! Thanks so much for sharing!

  5. Alexandra:

    Thanks you for such an insightful and beautifully moving post. A few thoughts. As a physician I will concur that (from an individual perspective) there is NO such thing as normal or neurotypical. I think the use of terms like normal and neurotypical is very helpful from a statistical/epidemiological perspective but that it breaks down (badly) when applied to an individual. I refer to this as the fact that statistical definitions in medicine, health care and wellness are “poorly downward scalable”.

    This highlights the importance of developing an individualized (and personally developed) vocabulary for personal experience. In my experience the techniques of Quantified Self hold the key to developing such a vocabulary for the individual. Not merely as a means toward a label (although a label is a great starting point for many people) but as a larger means toward true insight and an action plan which exposes non-neurotypicality in order to improve personal well being.

    • Neuro Detour says:

      This is for both Alexandra and the Doctor:

      Excellent point, Dr. Onyeije, to go with an excellently written essay. From the vantage point of someone with neurological disorders, my fellow neuro-ites and I can relate deeply to this post, especially the sensory “abnormalities.”

      One of my doctor’s, a physiatrist who also practiced Eastern pain management, explained to me that (particularly young – I’m in my 30′s) people like me, battling rare and debilitating disorders or disease, are chosen people. Firstly, because in able to survive, we are forced to gain insight into a greater humanity than a normal human can achieve in a single lifetime. Secondly, with our heightened neuro-senses, in a different time we would be the ninjas of the world – gimpy ninjas – but ninjas none the less.

      So, often, when strangers see my cane, walker, or wheelchair, or scars and portacaths, etc., and ask with what I compare to “morbid curiousity” “what’s wrong with you?” I reply, “ninja accident,” with a big, friendly, definitive smile.

  6. NJ_Cher says:

    There’s a book on highly sensitive people. They’re about 15 per cent of the population.

  7. Erica Brand says:

    Alexandra,

    Great post. I am exploring these questions for my children, and trying to figure out the best approaches. Can you please say more about the psychological assessment tests? My exposure to them has mostly been through high time/money/specialist’s office barriers, but it seems like they should be accessible to anyone. I know about Conners for ADHD and CY-BOCS for OCD. Do you have references for more assessments and thoughts on interpreting them?

    Thanks!

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  9. o morgan says:

    Alexandra,

    I would bet that if it were investigated, it could be shown that you have an above average level of mirror neurons in your brain. This actually is a trait most notoriously found in people who have Synesthesia.

    Best of Luck,

    Oby

    • Alexandra Carmichael says:

      Thanks Oby! Do you have any references for this? I do experience synesthesia sometimes, so that’s a super interesting idea.

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  11. Aaron says:

    Alexandra,

    Your post struck a chord with me. When it comes to psychological labels, I feel like I’ve always been a square peg in a system of round holes. Although I don’t share your particular traits, I know first-hand that, when you know you’re not “normal,” you want to know what your “problem” is and how to label it. Because, without a label, how can you admit to yourself that you’re struggling with things that other people don’t understand and that you will probably never be able live life the way you see so many other people living it?

    Things have gotten more difficult for me as I’ve gotten older. After going through some thorough psychological testing recently, I was told that I was an extreme outlier on certain measures and tests. And they had some vague ideas about what might help, including medication…but they had no DSM label to give me. So what do you do when there’s no well-worn path to walk down? I guess you have to take an active approach to learning about yourself, to create a story of who you are from scratch, and to forge your own path forward. It feels daunting to me sometimes, but I know that those who manage to do that sort of thing always come out ahead in the end, regardless of where they started.

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  13. Robert Hubbell says:

    I’m wondering if anyone knows of a single video that might best serve as an introduction to self-tracking for teaching purposes. I teach a course on the history of psychology, and would like to include this as a discussion point for contenporary/future trends and directions.

  14. LOVE this! Am linking it to an article that will post between now and dawn on my ADD-focused WordPress blog – entitled, “Remembrance of Selves Past” I’ll ping you when it’s up.

    I have long noted that many of my “Attentional Spectrum” clients tend to be “empaths,” and have often felt overwhelmed by that “other people’s emotions” channel myself, so I tend to lean toward the mirror neuron theory mentioned above – Google the term – quite fascinating. I would also suggest you look at some of Ramachandran’s work (interesting video with transcript up right now on the edge.org site)

    @Robert – not sure what you’re looking for or if you are STILL looking, but I share a link to a no-charge eBook (not mine, no connection) in the article mentioned in this comment. It’s not a video, but it might serve your purpose in a similar way.

    Great comments here as well – I love Dr. Onyeije’s comment re; diabetes and mood – always a big problem for my [late] sister, regardless of “numbers.” I’m also right in line with him on the need for both quantfiers AND subjectives – tho’ I personally am more inclined, when a conflict seems to arise, to go with the anecdotal before the “scientific.”

    ALL studies are skewed by sampling error of one type or another, and limited by study size – simply the nature of the beast. We tend to forget that as soon as the great *science* word is intoned, however. GIGO applies to metastudies as well (from the computer field: garbage in, garbage out). More is more, not necessarily more definitive or accurate.

    In my own “one rat studies” over the past several decades, the anecdotal has eventually been “proven” by science time and time again — EVENTUALLY!

    Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, SCAC, MCC – (blogging at ADDandSoMuchMore and on ADDerWorld – dot com!)
    “It takes a village to educate a world!”

  15. LOVE this! Am linking it to an article that will post between now and dawn on my ADD-focused WordPress blog – entitled, “Remembrance of Selves Past” I’ll ping you when it’s up.

    I have long noted that many of my “Attentional Spectrum” clients tend to be “empaths,” and have often felt overwhelmed by that “other people’s emotions” channel myself, so I tend to lean toward the mirror neuron theory mentioned above – Google the term – quite fascinating. I would also suggest you look at some of Ramachandran’s work (interesting video with transcript up right now on the edge.org site)

    @Robert – not sure what you’re looking for or if you are STILL looking, but I share a link to a no-charge eBook (not mine, no connection) in the article mentioned in this comment. It’s not a video, but it might serve your purpose in a similar way.

    Great comments here as well – I love Dr. Onyeije’s comment re; diabetes and mood – always a big problem for my [late] sister, regardless of “numbers.” I’m also right in line with him on the need for both quantfiers AND subjectives – tho’ I personally am more inclined, when a conflict seems to arise, to go with the anecdotal before the “scientific.”

    ALL studies are skewed by sampling error of one type or another, and limited by study size – simply the nature of the beast. We tend to forget that as soon as the great *science* word is intoned, however. GIGO applies to metastudies as well (from the computer field: garbage in, garbage out). More is more, not necessarily more definitive or accurate.

    In my own “one rat studies” over the past several decades, the anecdotal has eventually been “proven” by science time and time again — EVENTUALLY!

    Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, SCAC, MCC – (blogging at ADDandSoMuchMore and on ADDerWorld – dot com!)
    “It takes a village to educate a world!”

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  18. Ekhill says:

    I am like this, to a T. I struggle daily to understand it all. the insane sensory issues where light touch or repeditvie noise can send me into a panic attack. Also always seeming to know what people really feel or mean is difficult to deal with everyday. I was diagnosed with a sensory processing disorder but no one thing seems to fit it all.

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