The Word “Allistic”, Its Meaning, and Our Language Choices
At a Glance
In this post, we're talking about language use around the words autistic, neurotypical, and now allistic.
We define the word "allistic", explain why we use it, and more on the contexts of its use.
We describe the differences between "neurotypical" and "allistic" and how we will be using allistic in future posts.
If you are a dedicated reader of our blogs, newsletters, and toolkits, you may have noticed a minor shift in our language over the past few months.
The word “allistic” has been popping up quite a bit more often, while “neurotypical” has been appearing less. That change was on purpose, and we wanted to share a little bit of our thought process on why we are taking that step.
Our goal in sharing our reasoning is twofold:
First, we want to continue as always to solicit feedback from autistic people on whether our practices are best serving you and to answer any questions, both of which can always be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Second, we want to offer a little bit of a primer to people who are unfamiliar with the word allistic and the context into which it fits.
We know that sometimes navigating “correct” terminology can be challenging, and one thing we want to emphasize is that this is not a case where one word is good and the other is bad.
Rather, each word has its own meaning and there are reasons why one might use the word “allistic” in some situations and “neurotypical” in others.
We are sharing our underlying reasoning in the hope that people who are unfamiliar with either term will feel more comfortable making decisions on when and how to use them.
What does “allistic” mean?
Allistic refers to anyone who is not autistic. If you meet a person who is not autistic, you could reasonably describe that person as allistic.
Does “neurotypical” mean the same thing?
Not exactly! Some people are both neurotypical and allistic, but not everyone who is allistic is neurotypical.
Wait, but I’m pretty sure I’ve heard “neurotypical” used to mean “non-autistic” before.
We have heard it used in that context as well, and in some cases, we have used it that way in the past.
In many applications, it might not feel like a big deal, but using neurotypical to signify non-autistic people, particularly when comparing the experiences of autistic people versus non-autistic people, is by definition inaccurate.
What does it mean then?
To understand the distinction in meaning for the word “neurotypical,” it can be helpful to remind ourselves what exactly is meant when we talk about neurodiversity and who is considered neurodivergent.
While the words “autistic” and “neurodivergent” are also sometimes used interchangeably too, the reality is that neurodiversity is meant to encompass a much wider variety of differences in learning, processing, and thinking than exclusively autism and many people who are neurodivergent are not autistic.
Just some examples of neurodivergence in addition to autism include but are not limited to: ADHD, dyslexia, Tourette’s syndrome, dyscalculia, and OCD.
In this context, the word “neurotypical” represents brains that learn, process, and think in a way that is broadly socially treated as common or typical.
While there is much to be said about how society at large views and treats brain differences, the terms neurotypical and neurodivergent are helpful shorthands, particularly when it comes to the difference in experiences among the groups of people those terms represent.
Which brings us back to the importance of using accurate terminology.
Why do we want to avoid using the word “neurotypical” when we really mean “allistic?”
Every time we use the word “neurotypical” when we really mean “allistic,” we are inadvertently communicating either that all neurodivergent people’s experiences are to be lumped in with those of autistic people despite numerous differences existing or that autistic people represent all of neurodiversity, in essence erasing the many other brain differences that the word “neurodiversity” is meant to represent.
In some circumstances, the impact may be innocuous, but when we get to topics like social bias or workplace discrimination lumping people’s unique experiences together can be that much more harmful.
The best thing to do is be as accurate as possible in the language we use in as many situations as we can, both to be prepared for higher stakes moments and because we as individuals don’t always know all the ways that others are affected by a given situation.
While in some cases the experiences of autistic people and neurodivergent people do overlap, those are the exact situations where using “neurodivergent” and “neurotypical” would be more appropriate.
If we treat them as interchangeable, it’s much harder to know whether an intentional distinction is being made.
The muddier the meaning, the more likely that people with experiences relevant to the conversation are disregarded.
When would we use the word “neurotypical” instead?
Here at AGU, we spend much more of our time talking about autistic people than neurodivergent people as a whole, so it just makes sense that we would use the word allistic more than the word neurotypical.
But that doesn’t mean we will never use the term neurotypical, and there are some contexts where neurotypical stands on its own.
Aside from the obvious cases where it is used in contrast to neurodivergent, it is worth remembering that the neurotypical identity represents a form of social privilege that is not shared by neurodivergent people, even if neurodivergent people experience this lack of privilege in different ways.
In particular, it is neurotypical people who have the most power to set social norms.
For example, when we talk about the ways autistic people may be affected by neurotypical social norms, the intent is to acknowledge who exactly is setting the social norms rather than simply using a term to contrast with the word “autistic.”
If you’ve followed us this far you may have noticed that in some situations the definition of the words are the simplest primer for deciding which is most accurate to use while in others we need to be more considerate of exactly what we are trying to communicate.
One crucial component of this process, however, is to listen to what autistic and/or neurodivergent self-advocates tell you if they believe you have made a mistake.
Not only is it important to respect the wishes of individuals explaining how they as individuals want to be referred to, there’s a very high probability that they have considerable lived experience with the topic at hand and that you can learn something from their willingness to share and explain.
Leaving with that thought, we want to offer one more reminder that we are always open to feedback from autistic people on any of our work and can be reached at email@example.com.
If you are neurodivergent and wish to share your experiences on this topic we would love to hear from you as well!
Thanks for reading and we will be back next week with a closer look at the concept of gamification in educational resources.