What the heck is “neurotypical privilege”?
First, let’s get some definitions straight.
Wordnik defines privilege as:
“A special advantage, immunity, permission, right, or benefit granted to or enjoyed by an individual, class, or caste. synonym: right.”
I have found that most people tend to make the error of conflating financial privilege with all types of privilege.
In their minds, people who are “privileged” are those who live a life of relative ease and who have never had to work or struggle because they are born into (or acquire sometime in the course of their life) abundant material wealth.
They (someone who may experience substantial financial difficulty or who grew up poor/had a difficult childhood, etc.) find the notion that they could be privileged as both an insult and an invalidation of their manifold struggles.
They haven’t had everything handed to them, after all. They’ve had to work and to struggle their entire lives! How could they be privileged?
Of course, there are other types of privilege than just financial privilege. And really, with the exception of financial privilege, they all boil down to the same thing – being a part of a majority. (Financial privilege seems to break with this maxim, unless you shift the majority concept from people to money – I.e., people with a majority of the wealth.)
That’s essentially all that privilege boils down to. It doesn’t describe people who never experience hardship or never have to work hard, as so many people think. It just means that being part of that majority isn’t making your life even harder and that you are insulated against some of the additional struggles people who are not part of that majority face.
It is important, before we go any further, for me to assure any and all neurotypical (non-autistic) people reading this that I am not suggesting that your lives have been all unicorns and rainbows devoid of any conflict, trauma, or elbow grease. That is not what is meant by “neurotypical privilege.”
It just means that being neurotypical doesn’t cause you additional struggles in your life.
A good parallel is a type of privilege which really came to the forefront of the public’s mind in recent years – “white privilege.” A lot of white people took issue with being told they experienced “privilege” as this, according to the limited definition of “privilege” that most people seem to have, denoted that they had an easy life.
In reality, all that “white privilege” means is that you belong to the majority of white people, and as the majority is generally going to be more accepting of itself, white people don’t experience additional struggles in the course of living, such as prejudice, for the color of their skin.
The keyword is additional. Saying that someone has “white privilege” is not the same as saying a white person never struggles in life. All that is being pointed out is that people of color do experience the same life struggles as white people with the addition of experiencing exclusion and/or violence because of the color of their skin.
Similarly, I am not proposing that neurotypical people never struggle, or never experience setbacks, loss, trauma, or any other types of challenges.
All that I am pointing out is that as members of the majority of society, neurotypical people do not have the additional challenges of exclusion and inaccessibility that autistic people do.
Returning to our definition for “privilege,” it is plain to see that neurotypical people do inherently experience such privilege by virtue of being the majority: “A special advantage, immunity, permission, right, or benefit granted to or enjoyed by an individual, class, or caste. synonym: right.”
Being a member of the neurotypical majority means, for instance, that one has a special advantage over the neurodivergent minority in such respects as accessibility. Since there are more neurotypical people than there are autistic, the sensory and social needs of the neurotypical majority take precedent over the sensory and social needs of the autistic community.
If you don’t think this is the case, consider for a moment how annoyed some neurotypical consumers can become when a grocery store or movie theater sets aside a few hours of their operation to create a sensory environment that is more accessible to autistic and other disabled people. To be asked, even temporarily, to relinquish total monopoly over the sensory environment, even for just a few hours out of the entire day, is enough to induce indignant rage in some neurotypical people.
Consider for a moment an autistic employee asking their boss for the sensory and social accomodation of working from home and hearing their boss chuckle and say, “that’s unfair to all of the other employees. We can’t change the rules just for you.”
“The rules” that can’t be changed “just for” the autistic person are the rules of neurotypical society, which revolve around neurotypical needs and abilities and expectations, and demonstrate this point very well.
Also, while it is untrue to say that neurotypical people never bully each other, it is also safe to say that neurotypicals generally won’t harass one another for making eye contact, or for their natural body language, or for using sayings and euphemisms.
In that way, they have the “immunity” spoken of in the definition for “privilege,” an immunity not shared by autistic people who regularly are harassed (and even made to go through traumatizing conversion therapy) for our unique relationship with eye contact, our natural body language, and our tendency to be literal.
Neurotypical people have both the “permission” and the “right,” within certain parameters (parameters which are broad enough to encompass most neurotypical people) to expect the society around them to cater to their basic sensory and social needs. They also have the “benefit” of consensus in these matters.
Autistic people don’t.
So while “neurotypical privilege” does not make a neurotypical person immune to struggle, it does provide immunity against the types of additional struggles that autistic people in the society face.
The way I see this privilege demonstrated the most is in an all-too-common neurotypical response to learning that someone they know has been diagnosed as autistic: “why do you even need a label? Just live your life! Labels limit you.”
To someone who isn’t limited by the way the society is set up, this makes perfect sense. They’ve never known what it is like to not have their sensory and social needs accommodated for. So to them, they don’t “need a label” in order to advocate for accommodations to get their needs met.
They don’t realize that having a label and recognition as differently-wired human beings have even made the few sensory accommodations we as autistic people are granted possible.
They don’t understand that without such labels, autistic people are expected to keep pace with neurotypical society, in surroundings that lead to chronic sensory overload, literally pushing our nervous systems into a state of perpetual fight or flight, which leads to terrible outcomes in quality of life and health and well-being.
You can’t just “live your life” when you are immersed in a society that is not only not built with your needs in mind but regularly demands that you abandon all of your needs for the needs of those around you.
Neurotypical privilege is what insulates neurotypical people against the true realities of living as a neurodivergent minority in a neurotypical majority society.
Imagine you are born, as a short person, into a world predominated by tall people.
Since tall people predominate, everything in the environment is standardized to a scale that accommodates the “average” tall person’s measurements. Doorknobs are placed where a tall person can comfortably reach them. Countertops and cupboards are generally of a certain height. Seats in cars are designed with tall physiology in mind and even when adjusted to the “smallest” setting, a short person still may not be able to reach the pedals.
There are a million invisible (to the average tall person) barriers a short person encounters as they navigate this tall-person-majority society.
One day, a short person comes across the label “short person” and a lightbulb goes off. That’s why they were getting in so many car accidents! They weren’t a terrible driver, they were just too short to reach the pedals that were designed for taller bodies. That’s why they always needed to ask for help to get things down from cupboards situated high up on the wall, not because they were lazy, but because they couldn’t reach them!
Suddenly, so many things make sense. The short person becomes aware of accommodations that would level the playing field significantly and allow them to do things like drive safely and reach things stored in cupboards without always having to ask for help. They learn that maybe they can modify a driver’s seat to be closer to the pedals and to allow them to see out of the windshield better. They learn that they can either use a ladder to retrieve things from lofty cupboards, or even that they can lower their cupboards to a more accessible height.
They excitedly tell a tall person, “I was just diagnosed as a short person!” The tall person rolls their eyes and says, “why do you even need a label? Just live your life!”
Without that label, however, the short person is expected to just try harder to grow into a tall person, something that will never happen.
Without that label, all of the short person’s struggles, which are really based on inaccessibility, are reframed as personal failures and character flaws.
And to a tall person, who exists in a society and an environment perfectly suited to their size, they are simply unaware of the millions of ways that their society fails to accommodate someone with a smaller body size.
The tall person in such a society absolutely has an advantage over the short person. And it’s not that the tall person doesn’t also have the work stress or the life stress or the relationship stress that comes along with life, but they do not also struggle to reach doorknobs, or cabinets, or gas pedals. They do not also struggle from people reframing their legitimate struggles as character flaws.
In other words, the tall person in such a tall-majority society has “tall privilege.”
Tall privilege, white privilege, neurotypical privilege, these are all facets of the same diamond that is the social blindness that comes along with being in the majority and living in a society which does not take the needs of the minority into consideration.
It is ironic that autistic people are criticized for having a lack of theory of mind when that is literally what privilege is, and what affects so many millions of people in the various majorities around the world, neurotypical people included. Privilege insulates members of a majority against awareness of the struggles of the minority.
The whole “don’t let your disability limit you” narrative is another symptom of both ableism and neurotypical privilege. Could neurotypical and ableist people see beyond their filter of privilege, they would understand, for instance, that the short person in the tall-majority society wasn’t ever limited by the label of “short person” but was limited by the society being built to accommodate the physical needs of the tall majority.
The short person was only ever limited by doorknobs and gas pedals and cabinets placed way out of reach, and by the incorrect and harmful belief that they weren’t trying hard enough to grow into a tall person, just as autistic people have been limited by overwhelming environments and social rituals that place the acquisition of our needs just out of reach, as well as the harmful belief that we just aren’t trying hard enough to become neurotypical.
In other words, there are real barriers that autistic people face day in and day out in the neurotypical majority society, barriers which are invisible to neurotypical people. They’ve been invisible because these things have never been barriers to a neurotypical and have only ever been accommodations for their own needs that they take for granted.
When an autistic person discloses to you that they are autistic and you say any version of, “why do you even need a label? Just live your life! Don’t limit yourself with a label! Don’t let ‘autism’ limit you!” understand that you are expressing profound neurotypical privilege.
Understand that you have had the majority of your sensory and social needs met by the society in which you were lucky enough to be born in the majority, and that this has made you blind to the struggles that autistic people do face in this society.
Understand that it is not “autism” or “labels” that are limiting autistic people, but that it is the society being set up per sensory and social needs and abilities that are out of step with our own as autistic people. We are further limited by the general neurotypical refusal to acknowledge that this is, indeed, the case.
Life isn’t a cakewalk for anyone, neurotypical or autistic, but at least if you’re neurotypical, you’re not also swimming against a strong current of inaccessibility and prejudice, as autistic people are.
Let’s ditch the ableist and neurotypical privilege narrative that autistic people shouldn’t find relief in the autistic label and that we should just figure out how to “live our lives” without accommodations.
Autistic people need and deserve whatever accommodations help us level the playing field and increase our independence and personal autonomy to whatever level is possible.
If you can just “live your life” without needing a label in order to advocate for accommodations you need in order to survive and thrive in life, understand that that is because you have neurotypical privilege and not because labels are just inherently bad.
Understand also that no one, not even me, is asking you to apologize for being neurotypical, or for being part of the neurotypical majority. But it is nevertheless important for neurotypicals to recognize the privilege they have in being the majority so that a more inclusive society can be born.
That is my entire purpose in making a point of calling attention to neurotypical privilege, to hopefully create change, and to hopefully encourage neurotypical people to stop spreading harmful and (knowingly or unknowingly) ableist narratives surrounding autistic labels and needed accommodations. I highlight this issue to hopefully create a more inclusive society.
If you are neurotypical, even if you’ve lived a hard life and nothing has come easy to you and you’ve never had two pennies to rub together, you nevertheless have neurotypical privilege, and have an advantage over autistic people who have potentially all of those same life struggles with the addition of the weight of neurotypical expectations we will never be able to meet, inaccessibility, and prejudice.
You are not wrong or immoral for having this privilege. It’s not even a conscious choice on your part. But it is still your responsibility to become conscious of it and to also become conscious of the ways this might make you blind or insensitive to the needs of minorities in your community, and to begin taking meaningful steps towards a more inclusive society.
It starts on the individual level. It starts with you.
Recognize the ways in which you are privileged, recognize the ways you have been blind to the legitimate struggles of people who don’t enjoy that same privilege, and recognize the need to cultivate sensitivity and the ability to see all of the things you’ve been blind to.
This is how inclusive societies are built. And this is what I invite you to do.