Updated: May 10
Neuronormativity is the assumption that neurotypicality is the only correct way to think and behave. Autistic disablement is largely a result of this type of thinking. Like how heteronormativity disables queer people.
For example, everyone has social skills. Yet many people assume Autistic social skills are incorrect or nonexistent. People commonly try to teach Autists to perform neurotypicality, rather than learn how Autists communicate: honest, direct, factual. Saying what you mean and meaning what you say.
Here’s what neuronormativity sounds like:
“Come out of your shell.”
“Don’t take everything so literally.”
“Stop fidgeting, look normal.”
“Look at me.
“Make eye contact.”
“You can’t say that.”
“You’re not normal.”
“Show your personality.”
These comments teach Autists that there is something wrong with their Autistic personalities.
Neuronormativity often looks like:
Pressuring Autists to conform to the neurotypical gaze: pressuring Autists to shake hands, hug, flirt, engage in small talk, and make eye “contact,” with a smile on our faces, laughter in our voices.
Training Autists to behave in “socially appropriate” ways, often through conversion therapies and social penalties like bullying, gaslighting, and sensory abuse.
Playing social games: language games like gossip as well as office politics, social judgement.
Promoting social hierarchies (usually to gain power): often manifests as promoting differences in class, age, income, and other social constructs.
Accusations that Autists are violent or rude when we present authentically: especially when we’re advocating, discussing trauma or the disability and neurodiversity movements, and when we detail the physical and attitudinal barriers that disable us.
Promoting Neurodiversity Lite: repackaging the neurodiversity movement and paradigm in ways that promote the medical model’s pathology paradigm (cultural appropriation). Manifests as calling neurominorities “neurodiverse” and “disordered” as well as denying autonomy and dignity. People who follow Neurodiversity Lite tend to deny autonomy and dignity, while judging neurominorities as “disordered” or otherwise broken, defying the tenets of the neurodiversity paradigm.
Neurotypicality is not wrong (or “normal”)
To be clear, neurotypicality is not wrong. Neurotypicality is only problematic when situated as the only acceptable cognitive style. This is what neuronormativity means: framing neurotypical minds as “normal.”
“Normal” doesn’t exist in any form. Judy Singer writes that the word “normal” didn’t even exist in the English language until 1840. She further states that disability theorists “repeatedly stress that what we currently call the norm, is actually a rarely achieved ideal.”
So when humans determine that certain people are “normal,” those who don’t fit these descriptions become endangered. Neuronormative minds believe Autistic people are misbehaving when we avoid eye contact, speak directly, avoid shaking strangers’ hands, or present neutral, authentically Autistic faces. Or when we leave social events early or avoid attending altogether.
Neuronormativity is everywhere
Autistic personalities are valid. Neuronormativity says otherwise. We live in a society that raves about the personalities of AI chatbots and believes there is something wrong with people who do not perform neurotypicality.
This type of thinking is everywhere: in schools, workplaces, homes, and even in online spaces, where Autistic behavior is chastised, pathologized, and medicalized. Our social, cognitive, and sensory realities judged and delegitimized under the label of “disorder.”
Neuronormativity results in denied jobs for Autists who don’t smile and engage in small talk during job interviews, despite their skills, talents, and achievements. That’s only one of countless examples of how neuronormative thinking marginalizes Autistic people.
Society teaches Autists to doubt ourselves, to see ourselves as broken, alien-like, not-quite-humans who need to fix our bodyminds. But disability is largely a result of environmental factors: a mismatch between a person’s bodymind and their environments, including the people in those environments.
So we need neuroinclusive spaces. Homes, schools, workplaces, communities that enable Autistics. Places where Autistic people can feel free to be themselves without social judgment—the same basic human rights everyone deserves.
In neuroinclusive spaces, all people, no matter their neurotype, feel safe enough to present authentically, not hiding any parts of themselves to sustain their lives. This process begins with examining our thoughts: learning what paradigms we follow and why.