The Glamorous Disease
Do you like to celebrate Christmas? Do television commercials fill you with desire for the products advertised? Do you wear gender-appropriate clothing and hairstyles? Do you think everyone should have a job, get married, and have children? Have you ever laughed at someone for acting "weird"?
If you answered yes to any of those questions, you might just be a neurotypical. The term, coined by autism and Asperger's syndrome activists in the neurodiversity movement, is being used more and more within this community to describe the sort of person whose fixation on "normal" mental activity is tantamount to discrimination. As diagnoses of Asperger's and autism skyrocket, especially among the most driven members of the scientific and arts communities, the idea that people whose minds work atypically are suffering from a terrible disease is starting to ring false. That's why the non-neurotypicals are rebelling.
At the Institute for the Study of the Neurologically Typical, a parody site that has lived since 1998 at isnt.autistics.org, a pissed-off autistic writes about the spreading problem of normal personality, which is "a neurobiological disorder characterized by preoccupation with social concerns, delusions of superiority, and obsession with conformity."
On Wikipedia you can find lists of famous people who have Asperger's, including electronic music pioneer Gary Numan and Steven Spielberg. For anyone familiar with minority politics, it should be no surprise that there are also lists of people who might be non-neurotypical because they exhibit autistic traits. Bill Gates usually tops such lists. It reminds me of similar lists on queer rights Web sites, in which activists try to figure out which famous people might be gay.
When BitTorrent programmer Bram Cohen came out last year as having Asperger's, it was like a 1960s rock star saying he'd done LSD. His altered mental state became part of his allure, part of what inspires him to think creatively. Among the geekigentsia these days, you just aren't glamorous unless you can lay claim to being a little obsessive-compulsive sometimes, or at least unable to engage in ordinary social interactions.
In another era, non-neurotypicals would probably have been called eccentrics: notoriously weird but still lovable and socially useful. Nicola Tesla, who invented AC power and only ate food whose volume he had calculated before consuming it, would certainly have been one. Modernist poet Wallace Stevens, who wrote by dictating poems to his secretary at Hartford Insurance, would have been another. The novels of Charles Dickens are full of such characters. They're weird but certainly not diseased, and they even have an honored place in their communities.
Clearly, the neurodiversity movement is aiming at a similar kind of acceptance for autistics and Aspies. As someone who could hardly be accused of neurotypicality, I can't say this isn't a worthy goal. But there's an important difference between celebrating eccentricity and glamorizing Asperger's. Eccentricity describes a behavior, while Asperger's is an identity.
The non-neurotypicals may have taken the pathologizing sting out of the names for their conditions, but they're still rallying around the words that doctors came up with to label them freaks. Even this strategy isn't a bad one. I love it when epithets like queer become badges of pride; even better is when a term like hysterical, spawned by a sexist medical community hell-bent on suppressing women's sexuality, gradually gets converted into a slang term for something that's hilariously funny.
But I must admit to a bit of a squicky feeling when people seek to define their entire identities in terms of one particular thing, whether that's Asperger's or femininity or being an alcoholic. I'm especially leery when that particular thing, in this case Asperger's, becomes a kind of personality chic.
The glamour of being non-neurotypical elides the very real issues people face when they suffer from full-blown neurological trauma. It also, in some sense, deprives people of the ability to take credit for their own behavior. Cohen's considerable talent with the Python language becomes not a spectacular behavior but merely an outgrowth of being an Aspie. I guess what I'm saying is that I'd rather act eccentric than be non-neurotypical. The former lets me take responsibility for my weirdness, and the latter lets other people define me by it.
Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who refuses to eat chocolate-covered garlic.