Why it’s Important to Explicitly Acknowledge Neurotypical Perspectives

I got involved in a comment discussion on this post by sildarmillion this week about the lack of nuance in otherwise useful advice like “listen to your body,” and she said something that perfectly summarized a thought I’ve had before: “But a simple acknowledgement that you understand what you’re describing isn’t universal goes a long way.”  So it seemed like a good time to properly lay out one of my opinions on how to support the neurodivergent community as a neurotypical: simply acknowledging when you’re speaking from a neurotypical perspective and/or probably for a neurotypical audience is a lot more important than a lot of people probably realize, despite seeming to be a small thing.

The problem

See, one of the underlying problems behind the failure(s) to accommodate neurodivergent needs is the assumption that everyone operates in certain ways.  If you’re in a room with a bunch of people and a fairly standard level of lighting, if one person expresses that it’s painfully bright in there, the knee-jerk reaction is to go “What?  The light is perfectly normal, don’t be dramatic.”  If someone doesn’t make eye contact, others may assume that they’re lying or acting suspicious, because neurotypicals do tend to make eye contact.  Etc.  Most people don’t have malicious intent at all I assume, but we’re socially trained (explicitly and/or implicitly) that people operate in certain ways, so when someone doesn’t operate in those ways, it’s easy to not take it seriously if we don’t know what it’s like to be them.

And when we give advice or opinions on what people should do or how they ought to be operating, for example “always trust your gut,” as if what we say is universally applicable, we perpetuate this neuronormativity.

Here’s the example I used in the initial discussion: food.  In response to toxic diet culture and expectations, people may say that “You should just listen to what your own body is telling you it needs” or something along those lines.  I think this is good advice that some people need to hear.  I find it a good principle for me – I have mild dysautonomia that causes multiple diet-related issues (eating enough, needing more sodium, etc.), and it seems like one of the most helpful things I’ve done is stop caring about all the “healthy eating rules” and just eat whatever I’m motivated/able to, even if it means eating pasta every day of the week and never a salad (I make up the nutrients with a multi-vitamin).

BUT by itself, it lacks necessary nuance.  Some people have hyperfocus.  Some people have poor interoception (receiving signals from your own body such as being hungry or thirsty or needing to pee).  Some people need to take meds with food at specific times whether or not they were interested in eating at that time.  And so on.  It’s good advice in context, but to give it as if it’s what everyone should do doesn’t work well because sometimes you DO need to follow “rules” about what you should do that don’t necessarily match what your body is telling you, and if people ignore that part it can cause its own problems.

The kinds of people I’m thinking of this applying to

I’m not saying you have to give a “BTW I’m neurotypical” disclaimer before you say or post anything, before people think this sounds excessive.  I’m thinking more people who are in some kind of position where they may have slightly more influence over the social perception of what’s universally experienced or not.  For (incomplete) examples:

  1. Who: A conference presenter, podcaster, teacher, blogger, researcher writing an article.
  2. What: Productivity advice.  Advice on what your writing life or habits should look like.  Relationship or situation advice (for example, assuming “trusting your gut” will be equally useful for everyone regardless of their trauma history or anxiety or amount of life experience).  Studies about the effectiveness of XYZ therapy type.  Instructions on what “being focused in the classroom” looks like behaviorally.
  3. To name the ones I can think of at the moment.

What I’m asking for

But of course, target audiences are a thing.  As much as I would love to be able to include every potential context and perspective (if you think I use a lot of parenthetical notes, you should see what I have before going back and cutting the less necessary ones to keep people from getting too bogged down to finish reading XD), the nature of communication doesn’t allow that.  I’m not saying people should give equal airtime to every neurotype when writing a blog post of productivity advice, or teaching their favorite writing habits they think others would benefit from.

What I am asking is that if you’re in that kind of position, to be aware of and publicly acknowledge something like “I’m coming from a neurotypical perspective and thus this may not be equally applicable or useful to everyone.” 

Another specific example: if you’re conducting a study, it seems standard to track race, sex, age, and socio-economic status and acknowledge limitations in the composition of your study population.  But in my research for class papers, I haven’t really seen neurotype included in this list unless the article was specifically about, say, differences between allistic and autistic children or something. I did my undergrad honors thesis on the importance of asexual and aromantic representation, and I was finding studies that were conducted via phone call only.  Phone calls are known to be something autistics may struggle with, but we’re disproportionately likely to be asexual, meaning that to not provide alternate means of communication/participation is to potentially exclude an entire portion of the community and their experience from the research.  But, and this is the real point of this example, I wasn’t seeing this fact acknowledged in the limitations sections even though they acknowledged other demographics that were underrepresented.

WHY this is useful

Consciously recognizing and clarifying when someone is primarily by/for neurotypicals has two benefits that I can think of.  One, by explicitly identifying when something is relevant to neurotypicals instead of only labeling when something is meant for “the people in this other group we aren’t part of”, it (hopefully) makes neurodiversity and neurodivergent needs less automatically invisible to people.

And two, which is the one I can speak to more strongly because it’s my own experience, it benefits your neurodivergent readers because if something doesn’t seem to be working for them, they can more easily reocgnize they’re just not the target audience and move on, rather than feeling like they just have to try harder or that there’s something wrong with them personally if it apparently works for everyone but them.

Final example: As a writer, I’ve spent a lot of time in circles that tended to say you should do things in certain ways, and if it didn’t seem to help, you just hadn’t done it that way long enough to see the benefit, or something, and should keep trying harder.  And I realized a year or two ago that that’s part of the reason I had or have struggled to progress in some ways.  Things from struggling to write character emotions “realistically,” to my anxiety around voluntarily putting myself out there in a new general-social-context – it’s all related to autistic traits I have directly, or experiences I’ve had as a result of being autistic.  And while I don’t expect any particular individual to speak to autistic writers if that’s not their thing, it would have been nice if more of those people had acknowledged that their advice/perspective/instructions had limitations instead of acting like it should work overall for every random person on the receiving end.  Wouldn’t have spent as much time un-usefully fighting my natural inclinations instead of leaning into them and finding ways to make them work for me.

Little discussion question for the comments

How difficult is it to identify the limitations in your perspective to know when to clarify it?  I had a whole other now-deleted paragraph in the draft reiterating how what I’m arguing is a useful act of allyship for minimal effort, and then I realized that I may be wrong about the minimal effort part.  I’ve spent my whole life analyzing social stuff and how my own brain interfaces with it compared to others, and most of my friends are neurodivergent so I see other ways one can be different besides my own differences, so recognizing the applicability or lack thereof of things to just anyone may come easier to me now that it would someone who hasn’t had to question their own brain because the social world is built in a way that works for their brain.

4 thoughts on “Why it’s Important to Explicitly Acknowledge Neurotypical Perspectives”

  1. Glad you wrote this, discussing this issue in depth. While I am, as far as I know, neurotypical, I’ve often experienced the feeling of “something is wrong with me” when people (especially IRL) would talk about certain things in the way that should be obvious, but isn’t at all to me. I’ve trained myself nowadays to own it, and just be upfront about, “well, that wasn’t obvious to ME”.

    And you raise a great question. “How difficult is it to identify the limitations in your perspective to know when to clarify it?” This is the issue of the “unknown unknowns”. If somebody is operating under the assumption “this is how EVERYBODY thinks” how would they even know to acknowledge that they might not be considering all perspectives.

    The only way I can see is to be very vigilant with our assumptions and to never make broad sweeping generalizations. There are all kinds of people in the world. I can’t expect that all of them will agree that the Earth is round, for instance. Similarly, if the connection between two things is obvious to me, and to everyone I know, I can’t expect this will be true for everyone I will meet in the future.

    This is extremely important for me, especially now that I’ve started teaching full time. I cannot expect that certain concepts will come as naturally to my students as they do to me.

    1. I suppose that could be a more general issue too, even though I tend to think about things in terms of neurodivergence. For example, I’ve seen people complain about how they have this basic life/chore task or two they just never were taught growing up for one reason or another, and then everyone is rude about it when they don’t know how to do it later.

      That phrase “You don’t know what you don’t know” feels like it could be appropriate here to some extent.

  2. Good points- I think instead of people saying “you should do ABC” it’s better to say something like “I feel like XYZ so it makes sense for me to do ABC”, then if people don’t feel like XYZ, it’s obvious this advice doesn’t apply to them. Or instead of just saying a general principle, give specific examples, so then readers can understand that if the examples aren’t similar to their life, then the advice maybe doesn’t work for them.

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