An immodest proposal on the language of neurological difference

I don’t feel great about the language we currently use to describe and denote those of us who have a neurological difference. Even my use of “neurological difference” feels unsatisying or problematic, because it suggests that there is a difference from something we might call normal. Now… I don’t mind being different—I have adhd—but I don’t want my difference to point to that which is “normal,” meaning I am abnormal. That feels bad.


Other language has grown up around this very problem, but I find those words similarly unsatisfying, for instance, neurodiverse or neurodivergent. The latter is definitely a no go for me. Divergence suggests a branching off from what is normal or originally given. To my mind, divergent is a bad descriptor, because it suggests that whatever the thing is we’re calling typical or neurotypical was first or native or originary. And we simply don’t know that to be the case. Is autism or adhd an offshoot from the native neurotypicality of humanity? Maybe. But also maybe not. Perhaps the first humans were beings primarily with adhd or autism and what we now call neurotypicality was a divergence from those ancient people? Again… we have no way to tell. Or perhaps, all neurological presentations were present from the beginning of the species, which would mean that no neurological presentation diverged from any other. There is a funny and completely uncommon word from a particular philosophical tradition that describes this possibility: equiprimordial, meaning they sprung into existence at the same time.

Neurodiverse feels like the word most of us have landed on to describe those of with with non-standard neurological presentations. Honestly… I don’t hate it. But it’s kind of milquetoast. And if you interrogate it a little, it doesn’t really make much sense. Neurodiverse isn’t incorrect to describe those of, say, with adhd and autism, but to use it correctly, you would have to use it to describe everyone. We are all neurodiverse whether we have a diagnosis or we are straightdown the middle on the graph of neurological difference/typicality. That is… everyone is neurodiverse, but only those of us who are neurologically weird get called neurodiverse. This word’s heart is in the right place, but it kind of means nothing by meaning everything.

I mentioned above that neurotypicality is the line straight down the middle of the graph, and this is where I’d like to point my own proposal on naming conventions in the context of our current discussion. My own dyscalculia—a neurological difference itself—has meant that I struggle with statistical formulations of things. But one of the very basic ideas in statistics is a normal distribution graph, which you see immediately below.

By M. W. Toews – Own work, based (in concept) on figure by Jeremy Kemp, on 2005-02-09, CC BY 2.5,

As you move outward in each direction from the middle of graph—what we might call most “typical”—you encounter “standard deviations” from the mean. In the graph above, we see the four standard deviations from the mean, with the fourth making up just 0.1% of the whole of the sample.

So here’s my proposal: to use the language of deviation. Those of us with neurological differences could be referred to as neuro-deviants. Now… I know what you’re thinking: that sounds awful. Deviants and deviance is often linked to people with strange or dangerous sexual proclivities. But deviance is not a synonym with perversion. And it is not pathological. It is simply a descriptor of the distance from the mean, from the midpoint of the graph.

I have adhd and I am a neuro-deviant or neuro-dev or n-dev. Honestly… they’re all pretty fun to say, and I think I will claim them for myself.

But what about the neurotypicals? I have two suggestions, but, of course, people get to call themselves what they wish as a principle of self-determination. After all, no one in a majoritarian community has ever used language to describe us deviants in an unflattering way.

Here are my suggestions: N-Typ or Neuro-Mean. They’re also both fun to say.