Are You Neurotypical?

December 4, 2011

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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