My sincere thanks to Judy Singer, a sociologist and a person on the autism spectrum, who began to use this term in 1998 to describe those of us with brains that work on a different software platform than neurotypicals. Neurodivergent and neurotypical are brand-new terms to me, and maybe they are new terms to you as well. These are still labels we assign to individual, unique human beings, but these terms feel inclusive and much less stigmatizing. The power of words.
having or relating to a type of brain that is often considered as different from what is usual, for example someone that has autism.entry in the Cambridge Dictionary
When I was a child, there was no such thing as political correctness. Adults told us to “not call names,” but they largely ignored this standard themselves. Slurs, epithets, and derogatory descriptions were regularly used. One that I often heard from my peers was “retarded” and it was used to label someone or something as bad, messed-up, or weird. In my life, I have never used this word to demean anyone or anything.
As a child, I spent much of my daily life with children and adults who were clinically diagnosed with the term we used at the time. I regularly went to The School with my mother and grandmother. My grandparents took on the administration of a private residential school known as The Powell School in the late 40s until it closed, for the good reasons of community integration in 1977. Powell School served those families who were told that they could not care for their child with developmental or cognitive differences at home. Schools would not allow their children to attend with other children of the community. We have a long and ugly history of separating children from their families in America. Parents could opt for a state-run institution or a private residential school. There was no room in the neurotypical mind to consider that the individuals they labeled as abnormal, backward, severe and profound, deficient, mentally crippled, or peculiar, could actually be vibrant, contributing members of the community.
I have no early memories without The School. My mother, both of my grandmothers, and my grandfather worked there. I went with my grandmother and mom to the school several times a week. I played with the children who were my age and was absolutely certain that the children and adults who looked so alike were all related. As I recall from my child mind, it was a big family at Powell School. I didn’t realize that they had a label we now refer to as Down’s Syndrome. I just knew that they were Cathy, Billy, Lisa and others whose names have slipped from my mind. I am now spending time in the memory vault to place myself in the nooks and crannies of this long-gone building. It looked far more like a hotel from an Agatha Christie-inspired movie than an institution.
These new-to-me terms of neurodivergent and neurotypical are still labels, though. I don’t know if humans will be around long enough to no longer need to categorize each other as we do. But for now, I’m happy that these new labels have the potential to shift a paradigm. And I am good with being labeled a neurodivergent middle aged woman with a brain that operates on an ADHD platform.